Yale New Haven Health’s Michael Ivy on caring for hospital workers: ‘Everybody’s struggling’

Hospital workers may be struggling more than is readily apparent. Health system leaders need to recognize healthcare has changed and adjust expectations, he says.

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, some healthcare workers may appear to be faring better than others.

Michael Ivy, deputy chief medical officer of Yale New Haven Health, said looks can be deceiving. Most doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit, and beyond.

Ivy talked with other healthcare leaders on a panel about the importance of taking care of staff at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit in San Diego last month. After the panel, he spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about how health leaders must be mindful about caring for the well-being of their people.

“I think it’s important to understand,” Ivy said. “We have really resilient staff right now, I get that, but everybody’s struggling.”

“And some people are better at hiding it from others and some people are better at weathering it. But we’re all struggling, and it helps everybody to get this sense that people care about them. We all want to feel connected. We all want to feel like somebody cares for us and we care for somebody else.” (The story continues below the video.)

At the same time, surveys of some healthcare workers said they don’t feel valued by their employers.

Only 47% of nurses said they felt that their organization values their health and safety, according to a study released last week by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. A separate study last year found 40% of nurses - and more than 1 in 5 doctors - are thinking about walking away due to the stress of the pandemic.

Yale New Haven Health does formal employee well-being assessments of workers, using an acute stress survey tool, Ivy said.

Health leaders can go a long way toward reinforcing to workers that they care about them by simply checking in with them. “Just talk to the people you’re working with,” he said.

“Just recognize it’s been an incredibly difficult time and it’s going to stay an incredibly difficult time,” he said. “This is not getting over, unfortunately, any time in the near future.”

Given the ongoing difficulties of the pandemic, healthcare leaders also need to adjust their expectations of workers.

“I think the expectations have changed,” Ivy said. “I think there was a time when we thought COVID was going to stop. Really, genuinely, I thought that, if you’d have asked me two years ago, I’d say it’s eased off by now, and it’s not. It’s not eased off at all, and people are worn out, just worn out.”

“You have to change that expectation. I mean, I’m all about optimism, but it has to be realistic optimism,” Ivy said.

As the pandemic continues, Ivy said hospital leaders shouldn’t expect a return to normal.

“You have to understand we’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “Healthcare has changed forever. I think that’s an important piece to this, understanding, we’re never going back to what we were. We just have to keep going forward and find our way out of this.”

Erik Martin, the vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., participated in the panel with Ivy and shared similar thoughts on adjusting expectations. “These are not normal times,” said Martin.

Martin, who is also the president of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership, told Chief Healthcare Executive that hospitals must get rid of “the stupid stuff,” including bureaucratic tasks that have no value. Health system leaders also must lead by example when it comes to self-care.

“I think in our industry, healthcare, we’re always in it to care for other people,” Martin said. “And I don’t think that we truly always understand when we’re not taking care of ourselves, it sends a subliminal message to our teammates that it’s not OK for them to take a break either.”

Nikki Sumpter, executive vice president, chief administrative officer of the Atlantic Health System in New Jersey, participated in the panel. She said the system took a host of steps to care for staff, including “rolling resilience carts,” offering everything from literature to candy.

The system also took a page out of the reality TV show, “Big Brother,” where housemates enter the “Diary Room” to shoot some video. Atlantic allowed team members to shoot videos, which could then be shared, if they chose.

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