At this point in the pandemic, healthcare workers are experiencing burnout and need mental and emotional support more than ever.
Staffing issues and employee burnout were problems before the COVID-19 pandemic—and they only got worse. Consider, for example, Shannon, a behavioral health nurse who helps patients with mental health and substance use issues. “It’s a hard job to begin with,” Shannon says. “And then, during the pandemic, I was asked to step up even more. Then, there was the stress of going into work every day, wondering if this was the day I’d get exposed.”
Now a nurse manager, Shannon oversees the work, health and well-being of nurses doing the same work she did before the pandemic. She understands what she’s seeing, and it concerns her.
“Nurses are tired,” Shannon says. “Consequently, there is more sick time and more injuries. We are all burnt out, and there’s not enough of us to meet the demand.”
This is a looming crisis not only in America, but all over the world, as doctors, nurses, lab workers, nutritionists, environmental services staff and others struggle to find the normal in the so-called new normal. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 50% of public health workers have reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression and increased post-traumatic stress disorder.
Statistics are not encouraging, either. A survey from Mental Health America in 2020 revealed that 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress, 86% reported experiencing anxiety, 77% reported frustration, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% said they were overwhelmed.
However, there are solutions.
Here are three ways healthcare organizations can step up and throw their employees a lifeline in this challenging time.
1) Remove the stigmas surrounding mental illness.
Oftentimes, people don’t seek treatment for mental illnesses out of fear of judgment, shame or negative attitudes from other people. This is because stigmas about mental illnesses still exist. In fact, a 2019 national poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that stigmas about mental health remain a major challenge in the workplace. Healthcare leaders should take steps to remove the stigma, such as these five strategies.
- Educate your healthcare team. The symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress-related dissociation may not be as easily recognizable to staff who are not already healthcare professionals.
- Rethink “sick days” and paid time-off policies. Allow employees mental health days and/or paid time off in addition to regular sick days to help them recuperate from the psychological grind of the job.
- Talk honestly and openly about mental health. Leadership should lead the way, sharing their own struggles to open a conversation on healthy solutions.
- Use person-centered language when talking about mental health issues. Language has power. Leaders should use and encourage employees to use words like “struggling” instead of “crazy,” or “a person with a substance abuse disorder” rather than “addict.”
- Create a culture of compassion and empathy. Organization leaders should create safe spaces for employees to share and listen, and leaders should check in regularly to show care and concern. For example, at Valley Health System in Bergen County, N.J., C-suite executives have been reaching out every week to their weary employees, leaving messages of gratitude and encouragement on staff cell phones. The leaders have also posted notes of appreciation in elevators, sent daily inspirational texts to head nurses, and turned patient discharge numbers into welcome occasions of celebration.
2) Amplify support.
Amplified support is an approach that healthcare providers can take with their workers whose skills, time and energy are spent on the front lines of public health. But what does that look like in practice?
- Child care and/or dependent support. Employees at Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston, S.C., have access to onsite child care. The hospital opened the child care facility more than 30 years ago to address perennial problems such as retention and recruitment. According to Roper St. Francis, employees with children enrolled in the child care center are less likely to leave. However, child care options at hospitals and health systems are the exception, not the norm. But for organizations looking to retain employees and help ease stress, the service is a competitive advantage.
- Emphasis on work/life balance. Healthcare organizations should implement programs that help employees find a healthy work/life balance. This might look like creating flexible schedule options; offering on-site exercise, wellness and stress management classes; and ensuring teams are not understaffed.
- Transportation options. A McKinsey & Company survey has shown that 37% of Hispanic/Latino and LGBTQ+ healthcare employees struggle to find transportation to and from work, compared with 27% of the overall workforce. Transportation, the article suggested, could be covered by employer-funded debit cards or through subsidized partnerships with local communities.
- Career-long mentorship allows an employer to, for example, help nurses progress in their field from entry level to leadership. A 2020 study published in the Human Resources for Health journal suggests that nurse mentoring programs have the potential to strengthen the nursing workforce in a sustainable manner from within the profession itself.
3) Support diversity, equity and inclusion.
In a survey of healthcare CEOs, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions found that health equity was among the top priorities and concerns for executives. But many “recognize that their organizations must close gaps in health disparities by focusing in part on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in their own workforce.”
Inequity and discrimination are linked to stress—and can persuade people to leave their jobs, according to research from the APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey. A diverse and inclusive workforce is one where all employees, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, religion or sexual orientation, feel valued, understood and represented. Healthcare organizations can create this type of workplace and culture with these strategies.
- Build a diverse workforce. Patient populations are diverse, and the healthcare workforce should mirror the populations it serves. Look at your board of directors, executive leadership and high-level decision makers. Are people of color, women or minorities represented in these spaces? Organizations should focus on widening the pool of candidates to reach more diverse populations. Another way to expand the pool of future candidates is to partner with local universities and high schools with diverse populations and encourage students to consider a career in healthcare.
- Educate employees about implicit bias and microaggressions. In a July 2022 article for the New England Journal of Medicine, Janice A. Sabin, Ph.D., MSW, wrote that implicit biases “are attitudes and beliefs about race, ethnicity, age, ability, gender, or other characteristics that operate outside our conscious awareness and can be measured only indirectly.” Implicit bias and microaggressions not only have a negative impact on the patient experience but also can affect the employee experience. Organizations should use cultural competency training to help employees understand and acknowledge their own implicit biases and find ways to overcome them.
- Make DE&I an organization-wide effort. In January 2021, Olivia Peterson, director of consulting for Aveus, wrote a Medecision blog post about the necessity of prioritizing DE&I efforts. She offered five steps for improving these efforts and wrote that they “should be ingrained into the fabric of an organization not because it makes a good business case, but because there is a case for humanity in our business.”
For providers to consistently deliver high-quality care to the populations they serve, they must ensure that they are attending to the physical and mental health of their frontline workers—the ones who are actually providing the care. A healthy healthcare workforce is essential to a healthy public.