The US governmental public health workforce is undergoing immense shifts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emerging health threats, sociopolitical forces, and increased attention to long-standing inequities. To center their workforce development efforts during this period marked by change, health departments around the country are using data from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS).
PH WINS offers a wealth of insights as the only nationally representative source of data on the governmental public health workforce. Data include demographics on members of the workforce and employees’ perspectives on topics such as workforce engagement and morale, training needs, and addressing issues in the field.
Within our respective roles at the Cornell University Master of Public Health (MPH) Program and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH), we have found various ways to apply PH WINS data to workforce development efforts. Through PH WINS, we and our organizations have gained a better understanding of who comprises the governmental public health workforce, as well as the issues affecting their outlook, performance, and satisfaction. These national data have the potential to inform the health department activities and initiatives that organizations and their allies will invest in related to training, capacity-building, assessment, and recruitment and retention.
As a high-level overview of the governmental public health workforce, PH WINS provides a starting point for broad conversations about workforce demographics and trends, with implications for individual health departments. And as so often happens with research, these data can help articulate further questions. For example, why have there been shifts in demographics over time? For specific demographics, are there gains or setbacks in terms of representation in leadership roles? Parsing the data to attempt to answer these questions may inform the collective actions we take now, as we rebuild and reinforce our public health workforce.
Zeroing in on these data may also guide health department leaders and staff in identifying challenges and opportunities within their workplaces. One especially critical area for reflection in PH WINS is its racial and ethnic demographic data. Exploring these data helps employees to participate in open discussions about diversity in health departments. If staff do not look like the communities they serve, this recognition can become motivation to engage more intentionally with community members and strive to ensure that their voices are incorporated into the decisions that affect them. Furthermore, health department leaders may be inclined to examine their organizational hiring practices, thinking more critically about their applicant pools and the types of experiences and expertise that candidates have to offer.
PH WINS also serves as a basis for outlining actions toward creating a workplace that is responsive to employees’ needs, in terms of culture, capacity-building, and career progression. Staff can view the categories in PH WINS as a menu of options from which to determine priorities for improving their organizations.
For example, health department leaders could initiate this process by looking at the data on employees’ intent to leave their organizations. According to the latest survey featuring data from 2021, about one-third of state and local public health employees said they are considering leaving their organization in the next year. Health department leaders may convene their teams to understand the reasons behind employees’ intent to leave their organizations.
This knowledge will not only guarantee that they stay on but can also help supervisors to collaborate with their staff on ways to bolster retention and encourage executives to make changes to the organizational culture.
In related findings, the latest PH WINS data point to high levels of stress, burnout, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder among health department employees. Although some of the contributors to these mental health challenges are beyond the control of health department leaders, organizations may be able to offer greater support in response to these findings. Options should be guided by local teams and their contexts but could include, for example, providing more flexible schedules, mental health days, or referrals to employee assistance programs.
Another useful application for PH WINS data is addressing training needs. 2021 data show that more than half of all governmental public health employees cite budget and financial management as a training need, followed by change management and community engagement, both at 44%. Staff of each health department will have unique training needs and interests, but the breakdown of training needs among strategic skill domains and across supervisory levels in the PH WINS data can help focus local conversations around where to begin.
PH WINS also provides a common language when engaging in partnerships across public health. With these data, health department leaders are better able to develop opportunities alongside partners such as public health training centers, national public health organizations, and academic institutions. For example, the Cornell University MPH Program has partnered with the New York State Public Health Corps, the New York State AmeriCorps program, and Cooperative Extension System offices in state and nationwide on capacity-building training. To guide curriculum development, and to assess the effectiveness of this training, the MPH Program used PH WINS skill domains and data as a guidepost and a baseline to measure progress. Similarly, the NYC DOHMH partners with the Region 2 Public Health Training Center, using PH WINS to determine training needs and to inform training. The public health training center has used PH WINS data to inform their needs assessment, which the health department has used in surveys for NYC DOHMH staff.
PH WINS enables health department staff at all levels to explore the bigger picture of the governmental public health workforce while also highlighting commonalities across the field. It is important that health departments and their staff understand the larger trends in the field and apply them to their own organizations. With support from PH WINS, health departments of all kinds—whether large or small, urban or rural, or at the state, local, or county level—will be able to see themselves in the data and make the best informed decisions for their staff and their communities.
PH WINS is an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Learn more about PH WINS and explore the interactive data dashboards at https://debeaumont.org/phwins.
This column is based on the blog post, “PH WINS: A Resource for Workforce Development,” published on the de Beaumont Foundation blog at https://debeaumont.org/news/2022/ph-wins-a-resource-for-workforce-development.
This column first appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice. See the final authenticated version.