A recent article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong described the severe emotional toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on healthcare workers. It’s a grim read, but it’s also important.
Healthcare workers are one of our country’s most important resources. During the pandemic, they have been under pressure like never before. People are leaving the field in droves, causing staffing shortages that threaten the ability of hospitals to care for patients adequately. The trend is quite clear via this graph from the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.
Healthcare workers who remain in the workforce are subject to anxiety, stress, and burnout. Even during normal times, about one-third of all ICU nurses experience burnout syndrome — this includes symptoms of exhaustion, being mentally disengaged at work, and reduced professional effectiveness. Studies are ongoing, but every healthcare professional I know agrees that this pandemic will have ripple effects on healthcare workers’ mental health for years to come.
I had some questions about how hospitals can best support their people during this crisis, so I called Terence Bostic, Ph.D. He is a psychologist and managing partner of CMA Global, Inc., a group that helps companies with organizational effectiveness. His clients include dozens of hospitals around the country. Dr. Bostic expects the most challenging part of this crisis is still coming.
“The worst part of trauma is after the threat is over,” Dr. Bostic said. “These morale issues could actually increase as the pandemic recedes.”
1. Admit that you don’t have the answers.
Although Bostic believes there will be plenty of challenges in the future, he said hospital leadership can help their teams weather the storm by showing their full support.
“Acknowledge that while you don’t have the answer, you promise to do everything you can to support your staff as they go through this crisis,” he said.
2. Help team members become more efficient.
While wellness programs — including gym memberships, EAP, or yoga classes — can certainly help, Dr. Bostic said they’re only part of the picture. “A critical component of a wellness program is helping people with efficiency of practice,” he said. “Help them do their jobs safer, faster, and more efficiently.”
When it comes to increased efficiency, there are endless possibilities. Heather O’Toole, M.D., is the chief medical officer at Innovation Care Partners in Phoenix. She noted that while the healthcare world is already using technology to offer clinical services to patients who cannot come into the office, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“Why not use technology to help reduce the workload for your team?” Dr. O’Toole said. “At ICP, we’ve expanded our search beyond our local area to use more remote workers for jobs that are appropriate to do remotely.”
3. Simplify the decision-making process.
Dr. Bostic suggests that all people are “cognitive misers,” meaning they have a finite amount of energy to make decisions each day — and every small choice takes away from that total. “That’s why people make the best decisions early in the day, and by midnight nobody can decide anything,” he said.
To alleviate any unnecessary strain, he suggests finding ways to make administrative duties as easy as possible for your employees.
4. Show your team that you care.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some advice of my own. A good benefits package for your employees is critical to their well-being and sense of being cared for by their employer.
Using a solution like Paytient can make something stressful like medical bills far easier to pay and track over time. This simplifies decision-making for your employees and makes figuring out how to pay a medical bill as easy as swipe, click, and split. Making employee benefits easier to navigate is a great way to reduce some decision-making fatigue.
Perhaps the most critical part of surviving the challenges facing the healthcare world is remembering the power of connections — something Dr. Bostic reminded me of during our conversation.
“The promise of connection and companionship through this terrible journey is so important,” he said. “If you can convince your people that you will be with them through this, that will help.”