Supporting a resilient workforce during the pandemic

At NYC Health + Hospitals, a song plays throughout a hospital whenever a COVID-19 patient recovers. At Dr. Eric Wei’s hospital, that song is Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” 

Hearing Platten’s voice ring out the words, “This is my fight song, take back my life song, prove I’m alright song,” allows staff to celebrate, said Wei, who is senior vice president and chief quality officer at the public hospital system.

“People needed a little bit of hope and remembering why they are running toward the fire,” Wei said during a panel presentation at Modern Healthcare’s virtual Workplace of the Future Conference Oct. 8. 

Instead of being overwhelmed by the heavy burden they carry, workers are able to take a moment to smile and even to dance, he said.

The health system also set up 30 respite rooms for caregivers to take a break and had wellness staff do rounds to check on those who were working.

“A lot of our staff that were hardest hit couldn’t get away from these units,” Wei said.

During the pandemic, many health systems are focusing on ways to improve mental health and create a supportive environment for staffers who are physically and mentally exhausted after months of dealing with the added stress of being a caregiver, executives said during the conference.

“Very quickly we made a commitment, we recognized that caring for the mental and emotional well-being of our caregivers is no longer just a priority; it’s a precondition for delivering excellence,” said Dr. Arpan Waghray, chairman of the behavioral medicine clinical performance group at Providence.

The Renton, Wash.-based health system, which saw the first COVID-19-positive patient in the U.S., took two critical steps to ensure its staff’s resiliency: making sure all caregivers and their families had access to mental health care and leaders regularly checked in with their teams on mental health and wellness.

Resiliency doesn’t mean bouncing back; it means adapting to a new normal, Waghray said. 

“In some way or form, we’re all going to be broken,” but we can be stronger in the broken places, he said, referencing Ernest Hemingway.

And part of that flexibility comes from being able to trust those in charge, according to Dr. David Lubarsky, vice chancellor of human health sciences and CEO at UC Davis Health in California.

“We believe that you help build resilience when you build faith and trust in leadership,” Lubarsky said.

That’s why UC Davis Health published its personal protective equipment numbers twice a day; revealed the number of people who were being treated in the hospitals and intensive-care units; disclosed how many employees had tested positive for COVID-19; and shared every clinical study the system started. 

“A communications strategy, we felt, was the best way to build resiliency and prevent things from spinning off the rails,” Lubarsky said.

As the pandemic continues to test and strain health systems, leaders are adopting new approaches to staffing and finding ways to better use their own workforce.

At New York-Presbyterian, that has meant reevaluating what is important to the system and how employee performance is judged, David Crawford, vice president of talent acquisition, said during a conference session.

“You may have the technical skills to get the job done,” Crawford said. “I can’t teach you empathy. I can’t teach you compassion. I can’t teach you what it means to be a New York-Presbyterian employee.”

The system is focusing more on internal mobility and hiring from within, he said. Right now, New York-Presbyterian hires 35% of its employees in-house but wants to bump that number up to 60%.

The pandemic also has forced systems to learn how to better move employees around to cover needs, said Maxine Carrington, deputy chief human resources officer at Northwell Health.

Northwell created a skills database of all of its employees to see who could move to different locations to better respond quickly to staffing needs.

“Now we have formalized this huge redeployment pool that we can tap into during a crisis,” Carrington said.