The Cherokee Nation is Now Offering Mental Wellness Leave to Government Employees


When Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, signed a seemingly straightforward executive order, he was well aware that working during the pandemic was more challenging than usual. As head of the second-largest Native American tribe in the United States, Hoskin Jr. and his staff had already spent over a year helping tribal citizens navigate the pandemic. So when a staff member proposed regular mental wellness leave for government workers, it seemed like something he could implement quickly.

“We can all relate to the anxiety and isolation we felt during COVID,” says Hoskin Jr., adding that those feelings often mingle with work and personal stress. “Being able to step away from the office…is something that can potentially center an employee, whether spiritually, physically, or in terms of their mental well-being.”

On May 25, Hoskin Jr. signed an executive order that grants 4,000 Cherokee Nation government workers 2 hours of paid mental health leave each month. The policy will likely change the way government employees within the Cherokee Nation work—but it has valuable mental health lessons for everyone else, too.

Over 600,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, and Native Americans have been disproportionally impacted. CDC surveillance data from 2020 suggests that infection rates among American Indian and Alaska Native persons were over 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. Additionally, the CDC reports that American Indian and Alaska Native persons had higher mortality rates at younger ages than non-Hispanic whites.

Recent CDC COVID-19 tracking data suggests that American Indians and Alaska Native persons have the highest vaccination rates in the U.S. That’s encouraging news, but the above statistics still have implications for mental and emotional well-being.

“If someone passes in the community, there is a great loss felt, and the entire community feels that loss and pain,” says Sarai Cook, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and founder of the National Trauma Awareness Initiative (NTAI). Additionally, isolation, death, and sickness can “bring up many feelings from the historical trauma we have faced due to removal from our homelands, and subsequent attempts to strip us of our culture,” Cook says. This may help explain why Hoskin Jr. says he recognized “the toll that the pandemic has taken on us individually, and on us collectively” as vaccinations continued to rise.

So what can we learn about mental health from this new executive order? The overall psychological toll of the pandemic is still emerging, but it’s clear that workers need more support, says Aura Priscel, MA, a clinical psychologist specializing in family and individual therapy. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health examined workplace responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan and found that implementation of simple workplace measures—like clear information on leave and how long the new standards would last—caused a reduction in employees’ psychological distress and helped maintain their work performance.

Creative measures also have a significant impact. Iceland implemented several large-scale trials of four-day workweeks and found that they were good for productivity and mental health. Elsewhere, companies are piloting 5-hour workdays with similar well-being and productivity aspirations in mind. While these programs aren’t widespread yet, the ongoing conversation is encouraging. “The workforce has some needs that are not being met,” Hoskin Jr. says. “And, sometimes, you have to step back and think about peoples’ day-to-day lives.”

Mental health initiatives like the one implemented by the Cherokee Nation can’t completely change company culture, but they can help fight the stigma that keeps people from seeking support, Priscel says. If everyone is allowed to take the leave, it might ease some discomfort around stepping away. “Just as someone [who] has physical discomfort needs a few hours to take some medicine and improve, the same happens with those people who go through situations that affect their mental health and well-being,” Priscel says, adding that mental health is just as important as physical well-being.

Still, it’s understandable if you’re skeptical. Mental wellness and self-care have become workplace buzzwords in the United States, but many employers struggle to apply the concept, says Antoinette Bonafede, LMSW. “When time, money, and success are on the line, mental health often takes a back seat due to the unrealistic expectations placed on employees.”

Hoskin Jr. admits that, for the new policy to be effective, leadership within the tribe will have to utilize the leave. This seems to be yet another lesson for other people looking to roll out any employee wellness benefit: Leading by example goes a long way.

Ultimately, the biggest lesson is that mental well-being isn’t a luxury. Two hours every month might not seem like much, but Bonafede says that taking time for small things like having a cup of coffee, chatting with someone you love, or simply organizing your space can make a difference. “When I see clients that are overworked, exhausted, and burnt out, these are the things that get neglected,” she says. “When I ask them what they would do with an extra hour or two in their day, they usually can give me a list. We can all use more time for these things.”

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