161: Hope for the PH Workforce

Dr. Bruce Perry offers encouragement for the public health workforce; Dr. Gillian SteelFisher explains how public health leaders might use the information from her latest national survey; ASTHO alum Dr. Joneigh Khaldun from Michigan is in the ASTHO...

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Dr. Bruce Perry offers encouragement for the public health workforce; Dr. Gillian SteelFisher explains how public health leaders might use the information from her latest national survey; ASTHO alum Dr. Joneigh Khaldun from Michigan is in the ASTHO Trailblazer Spotlight this week; and ASTHO announces a new Speakers Bureau.

ASTHO Webpage: Insight and Inspiration Series

ASTHO Article: Leadership Trailblazer Spotlight - Joneigh Khaldun, Vice President and Chief Health Equity Officer of CVS

ASTHO Webpage: Speakers Bureau

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Wednesday April 20, 2022. I’m Robert Johnson.

Now, today’s news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Public health is getting more attention from leaders who want to help the workforce recover from the abuse and stress of the pandemic. One of those offering support is Bruce Perry, a writer, researcher, and adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s medical school. He recently headlined an ASTHO Insight and Inspiration event with a message that was so powerful that we asked him to join us here in case you missed him last month.

Now, here’s Dr. Bruce Perry in the first of a two-part morning conversation.

What was your message to those who gathered to hear your Insight and Inspiration talk last month?


I wanted to have two messages. One was basically an acknowledgement of how hard the last couple of years have been for people in their position. And their workforce and the work that they’ve been doing in the last couple of years has really been heroic and, in some ways, overwhelming; so, I just wanted to acknowledge that the levels of stress and unpredictability and distress and adaptability that they had to manage was pretty heroic.

The second thing I wanted to convey was a sense of hope; that, no matter where any office found themselves in terms of being down with staff and having staff demoralized, that there were ways to get back to a healthier place. I think that that’s important. We’re not helpless, there are concrete things that we can do to make things better and make people feel more productive and do the work as efficient and positive a way as possible.


Can you think of another time when a workforce in any category has ever been so bullied or demeaned?


That’s a great question. I think there might be examples of local conflicts in a school board or something like that; but I don’t think there’s—in my memory—a persistent, enduring, pervasive level of distress for a workforce than in the last couple of years. I think that it’s been very hard on a lot of people—you know, the number of people who have quit, the number of people that have sort of tuned out even though they may not quit, is very high.


Yet you came to offer some hope. Can you share that with us here?


Absolutely. You know, one of the things that we’ve learned about stress over the last 30 years is that it’s not something to be necessarily afraid of. That stress, when it’s present in a predictable way, when there’s some sense of agency or controllability to the stressful experience, you actually build resilience.

And so, one of the goals of the leadership in any organization that’s been impacted by this pandemic is to start to look at what is controllable, how do I engage my staff and the members of my organization in ways that give them some elements of control over how they do their work, and how do I moderate the stress orders to some degree?

A good leader is like a sponge—you know, you absorb a lot of the chaos and confusion from up above and from the external world to create a more predictable environment for the people who report to you and work for you. And so, I think if you can do that, you can begin to make the workplace somewhere people feel safe, they feel more regulated, they’ll be more productive.

And then, once that happens, it’s sort of a virtuous cycle. You’ll like coming to work, and because you like coming to work you’re going to be more productive at it, and because you’re productive you’ll receive positive feedback, and pretty soon it becomes a virtuous cycle.


Tomorrow, Dr. Perry explains how leaders can turn his advice into action. A link to the Insight and Inspiration series is in the show notes.


On Monday, Harvard pollster and researcher Dr. Gillian SteelFisher told us most Americans still trust their public health officials. She also imagined how leaders might use the information from her latest national survey.


As you think not only about clear, consistent signs and messages, think about messengers, think about your partners.

You know, we see consistently—and in this survey, again—that doctors are the most trusted messengers when it comes to COVID. They are followed closely by nurses and pharmacists. And people trust health professionals because they are scientifically driven and also because they are compassionate—they care about people. That’s harder to show when you’re in an institution.

So, make friends with the providers. Bring them in as partners and spokespeople who are trusted. Choose folks in the community who serve. If you have doctors on staff, make sure they wear their white coats to press events.



ASTHO has a new Leadership Trailblazer spotlight article, this one featuring alum Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. Read how she elevates women in public health using the link in the show notes.


Finally today, ASTHO has a new Speakers Bureau available to organizations looking for a subject matter expert. Among those offering their time: ASTHO President Elect Dr. Anne Zink of Alaska and Dr. Umair Shah of Washington State.

Whatever the topic, the new ASTHO Speakers Bureau can connect you to an expert for your next event. Look for the link in the show notes.


Before we go, we want to remind you to follow the show on your podcast app. And, if you’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn, we’d love a shoutout.


That’ll do it for today’s newscast. We’re back tomorrow morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I’m Robert Johnson. You’re listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

Gillian SteelFisher PhD MSc

Senior Research Scientist, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health