Even resilient healthcare workers may be hurting | American Hospital Association Leadership Summit

Don’t assume even the strongest staff members are OK. Leaders talked about the need for empathy and how they are tending to the well-being of their teams.

San Diego - More than two years after the emergence of COVID-19, healthcare workers have endured stress of long hours, caring for countless patients, and time away from families.

As many as one in five healthcare workers have left their jobs in the pandemic. Those who have stayed are undoubtedly committed and resilient.

But that shouldn’t be taken for granted. And healthcare leaders shouldn’t assume their staff members, even their strongest, are necessarily OK, said Michael Ivy, deputy chief medical officer of Yale New Haven Health.

“I would caution, even these people we know are remarkably resilient, are going to have trouble down the road. We need to be there for them, and each other,” Ivy said.

Ivy and other health leaders talked about building a culture of well-being Monday at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit. (The story continues after the video.)

The leaders all outlined the ways their systems have tried to care for staff members over the course of the pandemic.

Yale New Haven started well-being check-ins and screened thousands of employees. The screenings found 30% met criteria for counseling, and at times the number reached 50%. Some workers were given counseling. A handful of people were taken to crisis intervention units.

Ivy has disclosed his own experience with burnout and depression. Leaders should be encouraged to share their own experience with mental illness, to normalize seeking help. Many healthcare workers don’t seek help when they are depressed, incorrectly thinking it’s a sign of weakness.

“If you can find leaders who can share their story, that’s valuable,” he said.

‘Peer to peer support’

Erik Martin, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Norton Children’s Hospital, said roughly a third of nurse managers have said they aren’t emotionally healthy. And 75% of nurse managers said the well-being of their teams is their top priority.

“Peer to peer support is one of the most effective ways we can help our teams be more resilient,” Martin said.

Norton piloted giving staff compassion pins to wear. The pin has two sides with different colors: blue and white. If a staffer wore the blue side, they were indicating they were feeling fine. If the white side was displayed, they were sending a message that they were feeling burned out.

Peers would respond in different ways, such as helping with assignments or even just a touch on the shoulder. “Those things really made a difference,” he said.

Nikki Sumpter, executive vice president, chief administrative officer of the Atlantic Health System in New Jersey, said the system took a number of steps to care for the caregivers. Atlantic began what she described as “rolling resilience carts,” offering everything from literature to candy.

The system also took a page out of the popular reality TV show, “Big Brother,” where housemates enter the “Diary Room” to shoot some video. Atlantic allowed team members to shoot their own videos, and the workers could decide if they wanted to share the videos.

“We let them know they weren’t alone in what they were going through,” Sumpter said.

‘Empathy matters’

Health systems around the nation have lost key members of their teams, and Yale New Haven is no exception, Ivy said.

“It’s been incredibly hard on leaders,” Ivy said. “We’ve lost a lot of nurse managers.” The system has also lost physicians, including surgeons.

Yale New Haven has done work to provide support to managers. And part of that includes caring for them and their well-being.

“I think empathy matters. I think empathetic leadership matters,” Ivy said.

He offered a comparison the Marine Corps, where small unit cohesion is prized.

“People will do a lot for the people they work with,” he said. “You’ll stay because your friend needs you to stay.”

‘Empower our teams’

At Norton Children’s Hospital, the system tapped a group of 100 members of the student nurse apprenticeship program to help with a variety of tasks, Martin said. They proved to be invaluable, but they also needed flexible scheduling. Some said they could work shifts of six hours, four hours and even two hours.

But Norton worked with the situation, because shorter shifts still eased the burden on the staff, whether it was reducing their workload or even allowing them to take a meal break.

By tapping the student nurse apprenticeships, the system covered over 2,000 shifts.

Atlantic Health has also worked to empower staff members through the worst of the pandemic, and that has continued today, Sumpter said.

“We did not want to fall back to the old way of doing things,” she said. “We continue to empower our teams.”

When a problem arose, Sumpter said, leaders were asked how they should tackle the issue. When they outlined a potential solution, they were told to go ahead, Sumpter said.

Empowerment “began to happen because we gave space for it,” she said.Don’t assume even the strongest staff members are OK. Leaders talked about the need for empathy and how they are tending to the well-being of their teams.