How to build a more resilient public health workforce

How to build a more resilient public health workforce
By Sandra Tibbs and Alison Hayward
Nov 6, 2023

A culture that’s resistant to change is one of the top reasons that digital modernization efforts fail, according to our latest research. The federal employees we surveyed understood how a rigid culture can prevent an organization from reaching its goals. The key to overcoming this challenge? Embracing organizational resilience.

Organizational resilience is the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and adapt to incremental changes and sudden disruptions in order to prosper. Resilience goes beyond survival to address an organization's ability to adapt when experiencing adverse conditions. It is a multidimensional and complex concept rooted in fields ranging from physics and ecology to psychology and economics, and therefore requires a holistic approach for organizations to achieve, encompassing elements such as strategic planning, digital enhancements, employee well-being, and leadership involvement. While not a new concept, in our increasingly fast-paced culture, resilience has become even more of a key strategy to navigate through stress and challenges, making it a cornerstone for organizational success. Resilient organizations build a long-term competitive advantage for themselves.

U.S. public health agencies are currently in a resilience crisis, struggling to meet the needs of the workforce, with a lack of interoperability and outdated technology infrastructure and insufficient resources due to budget constraints. While many organizations are undergoing similar challenges, public health agencies are also dealing with added public exposure, criticism, and scrutiny from policymakers and the public on issues such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to the complexity are organizational challenges such as silos within the organization, top-down decision-making, and lack of internal transparency. These are some of the major challenges threatening the agility of public health organizations, which diminish their resilience.

By taking a systems-thinking approach through the recognition and prioritization of the linkages, relationships, interactions, and interdependencies among the components of the organization (e.g., policies, procedures, team dynamics), public health agencies can look at their organization as a whole and build a resilient system capable of adapting to a wide range of challenges. Organizations that incorporate a resilient response in the face of challenges will build and enhance competence, growth, and efficacy in individuals and leaders.

4 ways to build organizational resilience

1. Address organizational deficiencies that hinder responsiveness. Evaluate existing processes and capacities and map them to future needs, then proactively review routines and processes, question assumptions behind the routines, and consider how operational goals can be met in the case of a disruption. For example, we’ve conducted focus groups for agency workforce analyses to determine existing assets and deficiencies, followed by gap analyses, to inform strategic roadmaps that result in increased organizational resilience and agility for our clients.

2. Promote a culture that supports fast and agile decision-making. Coach senior leaders to model agile principles and behaviors, such as using agile practices in daily stand-up meetings for key initiatives and retrospectives/lessons-learned conversations. Share ongoing communication about the importance of agile decision-making and the benefits it brings to the organization. Encourage transparency in decision-making processes by sharing rationale and outcomes to build trust and encourage agility, and empower teams and individuals to make decisions at their level by providing clear guidelines for decision-making boundaries.

We’ve seen success in creating customized cohort-based leadership programs for agencies to support leaders in developing the skills they need to successfully implement digital transformation and cultural shifts. This approach enables resilience-building efforts to flow from leaders to staff, resulting in positive reports from staff and increased employee engagement.

3. Prepare agency leaders to anticipate and manage crisis situations. Empower leaders to develop a culture that encourages change and welcomes experimentation, failure, and learning, along with the skills (e.g., strategic thinking, problem solving) and tools (e.g., futurecasting activities, crisis decision framework, data-driven decision-making tools) they need to identify potential threats and provide creative and flexible solutions to address them by tapping into the expertise of their staff.

4. Proactively seek and incorporate feedback to be responsive to the needs of the workforce. Conduct listening sessions, organizational assessments, and 360-based interviews to incorporate the voices of those in the workforce and identify root causes to organizational issues, and enlist staff through tiger teams, workgroups, etc. to support leaders in taking action to address the root causes uncovered by listening to staff.

Building resilience in U.S. public health agencies is an ongoing process that requires a holistic approach. By understanding and implementing resiliency strategies, public health agencies can better prepare for future challenges.

Meet the authors
  1. Sandra Tibbs, Lead, Organizational Effectiveness

    Dr. Tibbs’ experience and expertise stems from over 20 years as a successful leader in the military and management consulting, as an organizational development (OD) and leadership development expert, executive coach, and facilitator working with corporate and government clients. Through her work she has help teams and organizations increase their resilience by tapping into their collective intelligence to develop innovative solutions that help individuals, teams and organizations address their most challenging problems.

  2. Alison Hayward, Senior Organizational Effectiveness Consultant

    Ms. Hayward has over 15 years of professional experience in change management, process improvement, evaluation, and program management. Ms. Hayward has led and contributed to a variety of consulting projects in the public sector, military, NGOs, and institutes of higher education, and is skilled at identifying needs and customizing strategic approaches and tools that help employees adapt to change and improve company culture. Her background in evaluation and continuous learning and improvement methodologies drive her learning-centered approach to organizational transformation and organizational resilience.

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