Strengthen care team well-being with focus on essential needs
By Megan Headley
Clinicians have passed their breaking points. Staffing shortages are at all-time highs. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some health systems are reevaluating roles to identify essential functions for maintaining their staff’s emotional and psychological well-being.
This reevaluation is stemming from guidance issued by the National Academy of Medicine in collaboration with the CEO Coalition, a group of CEOs from 17 U.S. health systems. Together, these partners have identified clear, evidence-based actions that they say health system executives can quickly implement to support staff well-being.
“With the level of trauma that team members have been undergoing, there’s a big focus on mental health,” says Liz Boehm, learning community lead for the CEO Coalition and executive strategist at Vocera, a company providing clinical communication and workflow solutions around the globe. “People need to recover from the extreme levels of death they’ve experienced and the fear that they have felt around infection risk since the beginning of pandemic. They need that mental health support. But if we focus solely on recovery and not on reducing the level of trauma and pain that people are experiencing in their day-to-day work, we’re missing something.”
While ample resources exist to support well-being, the coalition’s 2022 Healthcare Workforce Rescue Package aims to stand apart by streamlining advice and creating a clear starting place. The package prioritizes the five most critical actions health system leaders can take today to safeguard healthcare workers’ emotional and psychological stability. Each action can also help health systems lay a foundation for broader well-being initiatives in the future.
The rescue package’s priorities are largely about simplicity. For example, its first piece of advice is to streamline patient care for overburdened team members by adjusting expectations. “Nobody is suggesting that you step out on things like central lung infections or things like that,” Boehm explains. “But, for example, some organizations are looking at goals such as getting everybody discharged by noon. If you legitimately don’t have the resources to do that, then holding team members accountable to that as a metric feels punitive.”
The package aims to remind organizations that although “care as usual” might still be the goal, these are unusual times. “The idea is that you look at goals and identify what’s feasible with the resources you have available,” Boehm says. “If you’re short staffed, if you’re overrun with COVID, what can you expect people to be successful at doing?”
Streamlining operations is at the heart of the next recommendation as well: Get rid of stupid stuff. While “all quality and process improvement workers should be driving towards [streamlining] at all times,” says Boehm, it’s essential today to ensure clinicians are able to prioritize meaningful work.
“We wanted to include this category to say anything you can take off of team members’ plates right now that isn’t advancing quality of care, that isn’t expanding their joy and practice, that isn’t giving them room to practice exceptional medicine as well as take care of themselves, is something that is a leadership obligation to eliminate at this moment,” Boehm says.
Executives can better understand where they have room to eliminate nonessential activities by taking a turn on the front lines to support staff. Though Boehm acknowledges that leaders are experiencing burnout as well, staffing shortages are the most dire challenge facing health systems today. “You can’t keep staffing ratios extremely high and expect people to feel and be safe at work,” Boehm says. She suggests that leaders who aren’t comfortable in clinical roles can support with transport, scribing, or other outside-the-box areas of need.
“Any time a leader spends time on the front lines, having real conversations and experiencing the work itself, they’ll see those opportunities to ‘get rid of stupid stuff,’ ” Boehm points out. “They’ll hear more directly about the challenges people are facing and the kinds of support that will be most meaningful to them.”
Another radical way that organizations can shore up staffing, according to the workforce rescue package, is to upskill staff where possible. “It’s not about asking for more so much as it it’s recognizing that even though we’re in a crisis moment, people still want to grow,” Boehm says. “They still want to know that there is a future for them in healthcare.”
Staff also want to know that health systems are committed to well-being not just today, but in the future. To cement this goal and ensure recommendations turn into action, the rescue package advises health systems to designate a well-being executive. A dedicated wellness position may not be achievable for all organizations, but carving out responsibility for well-being at the executive level is critical for making employee wellness an essential component of health system success.
“With essential work, you need to have some level of coordination,” Boehm says. “Well-being and safety are not initiatives that you put around the edges of the work. They are fundamental to the work and how you structure work and how you think about staffing; processes; rewards and recognition; [and] diversity, equity, and inclusion.” A well-being officer can coordinate and integrate caregiver well-being initiatives—including mental health counseling and peer support programs—throughout the organization.
Executives can visit www.ceocoalition.com to join the coalition and commit to protecting their healthcare workforce.