Time to focus on the resilience of public health professionals

By Dennis Archambault

Caring for and about caregivers has become an increasing concern in health care. One of the least recognized caregivers is the people who have been working under unrelenting stress over the past year and a half – public health professionals. Because of our work at Authority Health, we know and appreciate the pressure our public health colleagues are under. But a recent article about road rage inflicted on the health officer of Kent County over a school mask mandate suggests we clearly are at a tipping point.

Adam London, Kent County health officer, told county commissioners that a woman tried to run his vehicle off the road in August immediately after he instituted the mask order. He said he would no longer make public appearances out of fear for his personal safety. Death threats against Gov. Whitmer and armed protests in the Michigan State Capitol certainly have alerted us to the violent backlash among a segment of society that resists public health mandates – perhaps the idea of public health itself.

Public health is not a lucrative profession. People pursue it because they care about safeguarding and improving the health of their community, and about the health of vulnerable populations. They deserve respect and certainly don’t deserve aggressive actions directed at them. This phenomenon has been documented in professional literature, but the resilience of the public health workforce is wearing. If the stress of the work isn’t enough, threats to personal safety are pushing many over the edge, according to an article published last month by the Pew Trust. Nearly 12 percent of the 26,174 public health workers surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control said they had received job-related threats since the start of the pandemic. Nearly a quarter said they had felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of their work.

London references a “sickness” in society that allows aggression toward public health officials. In an email sent in August and recently uncovered by The Detroit News, London expressed his despair: “I need help. My team and I are broken,” London wrote. “I’m about done. I’ve done my job to the best of my ability. I’ve given just about everything to Kent County, and now I’ve given some more of my safety. If you want to fire me, or censure me, or pass a resolution condemning me, by all means, please proceed.”

The Public Health Communications Collaborative will cover this topic in an upcoming webinar, “The Public Health Workforce: Morale, Mental Health, and Moving Forward,” on Wednesday, October 6, from 1 – 2 p.m. ET / 10 – 11 a.m. PT. The webinar will address the ongoing challenges of dealing with misinformation, political divides, and even harassment that the public health workforce has faced throughout the pandemic. Moderated by Dr. Lisa Waddell, chief medical officer of the CDC Foundation, expert speakers will cover topics such as: building inner resilience, internal communications tips to support the public health workforce, looking toward the future of public health through a communications lens, and messaging regarding the need for sustained investments in public health infrastructure. For information on this free program, email: info@publichealthcollaborative.org.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Relations for Authority Health.