Best practices for handling staff emotional health during the pandemic: 3 healthcare leaders weigh in

A panel of healthcare leaders discussed keys to handling employees' emotional health and combating burnout during a Sept. 10 session at the Becker's Clinical Leadership Virtual Event. Panelists included:

  • Denise Mihal, executive vice president and chief nursing and clinical operations officer at Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health 
  • Emily Volk, MD, senior vice president of clinical services at San Antonio-based University Health System 
  • Keith Fernandez, MD, chief clinical officer at Arlington, Va.-based Privia Health 

Here are three excerpts from their conversation, lightly edited for clarity. To view the full session on-demand, click here.

Question: How do you handle employees' emotional health in a pandemic, and how have you helped your staff stay at the top of their game over the past six months?

Dr. Fernandez: I think the most important thing we did during the pandemic was communicate, then communicate, and communicate some more. A huge amount of change occurred in our medical practice, with people shifting jobs, even in the practices. Suddenly the work was not the same; patients weren't coming in. So there were a lot of people not actively doing their usual business. We tried to move them into a position so they [could] continue to work productively. We went from 155 virtual visits a week to 8,000 a day. Suddenly our virtual health team wasn't nearly as big as it needed to be. But we had other people that we rapidly trained into those programs. So I think we communicated [the changes] and we tried to maintain the sense of calmness during this.

Ms. Mihal: COVID is compounding a crisis that we had going on before, with the national nursing shortage. In the next 10 years, about one million of our nurses are going to be of retirement age. So, it was very important for us to be engaged and aware of our staff's emotional wellbeing and health prior to COVID hitting. We make sure that we're caring for the people that are caring for our patients. That is our priority. We have a resiliency program at Novant that we started two to three years ago and already 1,500 nurses have gone through this program. In addition, we've had healthcare providers, advanced practice providers and physicians go through the program as well. It helps us bring self-awareness and coping mechanisms to team members so they can combat burnout.

Dr. Volk: Communication is absolutely critical. And we did that through numerous different channels — in-person communication, Zoom meetings, written communications and email communications to our staff and medical faculty. We also implemented what I would call clinicians rounding on clinicians. We created habits of increasing the times leadership rounded on the physicians taking care of COVID patients. The chief nursing officer frequently rounded with her directors and continues to make sure that the frontline staff have what they need.

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