Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) experts from the Federal government and private sector talked today about ongoing efforts to “normalize” conversations in the workplace about mental health issues and employee burnout.

Speaking during a panel session at the ServiceNow Federal Forum event in Washington, D.C., ServiceNow’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Karen Pavlin said, “I see so much of normalizing the conversation about mental health and burnout.”

“These are the kinds of conversations – I’ve been in the workforce for 30 years – but I never ever had the, I felt, luxury to say ‘hey, can we get a minute,’” she said. “But normalizing the conversations, talking about burnout, talking about anxiety, and bringing it to the forefront” is part of the newer way of doing things, Pavlin said.

“At ServiceNow, we have actually instituted a wellbeing day – six extra days that we put on the calendar – it is a day for everyone to take off and really focus on themselves, and we’re taking that seriously,” she said. “We’ve also instituted what we call the People Act that is really focusing on everyone who’s living their best life, doing their best work, and fulfilling their purpose.”

Kathleen Wolfe, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice (DoJ), explained that one of the things that her office concentrates on especially with newer staff is “just creating that freedom and that space for them to ask for what they need, and we really do try to normalize that conversation every day.”

Wolfe also explained how she tries to set a visible example on telework issues in an agency known for a lot of in-office work by career staff.  On that front, “my job was making sure” that staff didn’t feel like they could not telework because the assistant attorney general was in the office every day. “So, I very intentionally do work from home at least two days” to set that example that she said is “important for the division as a whole.”

Stephanie La Rue, chief of DEIA at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, talked about her office’s efforts in the intelligence community, and said, “one of the first things that I’m particularly proud of right now is that we’re really leveraging or trying to lean into … what it means to work in the intelligence community, particularly for those who struggle with mental health issues, or folks who have PTSD, folks who struggle with anxiety and depression, because a lot of folks think that those are things that would prevent them from serving their country.”

“We have really doubled down on a demystification campaign so that folks can understand that no matter your mental health issue, as long as you are doing pretty good, as long as you are  monitored, you can still continue to serve your country and have a top secret security clearance,” La Rue said. “That’s something that I’ve been very passionate about because I struggle with generalized anxiety” after having children, she said.

She also talked about her office’s focus on neurodiversity “because again, lots of folks think that if you are neuro-divergent that you wouldn’t be able to serve,” she said.

One facet of that focus, she said, is training intelligence community background investigators in additional ways to interpret “some behaviors of this community as something that would indicate cause for concern.”

“A very common example is a failure to make eye contact,” La Rue said, adding that “in a lot of instances, people believe that this is a trigger that you might be lying, and that’s not true in all instances.”

In those ways, she said, her office is “making sure that we are looking into the training and the cultural competence of everyone involved in our security clearance process to make sure that they understand how to appropriately assess different responses to different questions.”

Clifton Douglas, Jr., assistant director of the Strategic Issues Team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), replied to a question about the impact of the Biden administration’s 2021 DEIA Executive Order, by saying that “at GAO, it’s been a continuation of stuff we have been doing all along.”

“I’m very proud of GAO in the DEIA area,” he continued. “For the last few years, we’ve been ranked number one among mid-sized agencies by the Partnership for Public Service, for our attention to detail in diversity, and we’re really proud of that.”

“At GAO, I think it all starts with top-down leadership … diversity is primary,” Douglas said. “It’s not what we do, but it’s a big part of everything that we do and [GAO’s Comptroller General Gene Dodaro] makes sure that that echoes all the way down.

“We have our sort of core values – accountability, integrity, reliability – but we’ve added something in the last five years, that’s what we call people values, that people are respected, feel valued, and are treated fairly, and our senior managers are held accountable for the culture and the climate they create in their individual teams,” he said.

“It’s very important for them to stress diversity, and it comes all the way down. I know that periodically the [comptroller general] and his staff go around to each team, each organization” and holds meetings about DEIA actions that each group has taken. “If you haven’t done anything, they’re taken to task for that,” he said.

Discussing things that they are personally proud of in the greater DEIA picture, DoJ’s Wolf brought up the agency’s action last week against the Louisville/Jefferson County, Ky., police department and government for civil rights violations in policing work including the use of no-knock warrants, and discrimination against Black people and people with behavioral health disabilities, among other findings.

“The Justice Department has concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that Louisville Metro and LMPD engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitutional rights of the residents of Louisville — including by using excessive force, unlawfully discriminating against Black people, conducting searches based on invalid warrants, and violating the rights of those engaged in protected speech critical of policing,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland last week.

Wolf said today that she was “proud to be a small cog” in DoJ’s action.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.