The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on health systems, and particularly on the health and wellbeing of healthcare workers on the frontlines of pandemic response efforts. (1) However, it’s not just during a pandemic that organizations need to focus on their employee’s health and wellbeing. Healthcare workers have historically faced high levels of burnout and stress, and it’s time for organizations to step up and begin to address these multi-faceted challenges.
A study by Mental Health America (MHA) found that from June-September 2020, 93% of health care workers were experiencing stress, 86% reported experiencing anxiety, 77% reported frustration, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% said they were overwhelmed. (2)
It’s becoming increasingly important for organizations to be prepared with the necessary tools and programs to address mental and physical health challenges facing frontline staff. There are several steps that healthcare organizations can take to protect their employee’s health and wellbeing:
1. Recognize and Address Mental Health Challenges
A variety of factors contribute to elevated stress among healthcare workers, including (3):
- Heavy workloads and high pace of work
- Long shifts
- Lack of physical or psychological safety
- Perceived job security
- Increasing incidence of workplace violence
- Workplace related bullying or lack of social support
The resulting psychological distress from these risk factors can lead to burnout, depression, anxiety disorders, sleeping disorders, and other illnesses. (4) Healthcare organizations therefore have a responsibility to regularly monitor the wellbeing and psychosocial status of their staff to identify any emerging issues and respond to their employee’s needs. (5)
One suggestion is for organizations to begin conducting weekly or monthly “wellness checks” to better understand how their employees are doing in the moment and over time. (6) Another option is to include mental health questions on existing employee engagement surveys. It’s important to remember that mental health can be a sensitive topic, particularly in organizations with high stigma or that don’t have a history of explicitly talking about or promoting mental health. (6) Be mindful of maintaining employee’s safety and privacy, such as by offering an option to perform wellness checks anonymously. In addition, any findings from mental health surveys should seek to provide a baseline understanding of how an organization’s workforce is doing as a whole and should not be assumed to be true for all employees. The goal of these types of surveys should be to offer a starting point for informing effective programs, policies, and practices for supporting mental health. (6)
2. Enhance Mental Health Support
After recognizing that mental health challenges may exist within an organization’s workforce, the next step is to provide resources and support to address those challenges. Organizations should consider providing employees access to sources of psychosocial support, such as therapy or mental health resources. (5) In 2021, employers across a wide range of industries are drastically expanding their mental and emotional health support benefits. This could include offerings such as emotional assistance programs with unlimited phone sessions or in-person counseling with a mental health professional. (7)
Another option is for employers to begin providing digital mental health applications as true benefits, not perks, by offering fully paid or subsidized access to digital mental health solutions. Popular mental health and meditation apps for organizations to offer their employees include Calm, Happify, and Headspace. While these types of apps shouldn’t replace therapy or treatment, they can be an innovative solution to supplement mental health care benefits. (7)
A “Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey” by consultancy Willis Towers Watson found that the number of employers measuring the stress level of their employees is on track to more than triple by the end of 2021, from 16% to 53%. In addition, more than half of employers polled (53%) will offer apps to support sleep and relaxation in the next year, up from the 27% who do now. (8)
3. Foster a Culture of Open Communication
Employee feedback plays an integral role in an organization’s efforts to improve employee’s health and wellbeing. Leadership teams should encourage staff to speak openly about their health and safety concerns and provide regular updates on how management is addressing those challenges. (5) Organizations should also provide channels for employees to easily express concerns and ask questions, such as through regular employee feedback surveys.
When staff do not feel like they have a safe, supportive environment to speak up about their concerns, employee safety and satisfaction is likely to suffer as a result. Establishing a just culture of care where employees feel safe and encouraged to speak up about any concerns is a crucial first step towards improving both employee safety and satisfaction.
4. Show Support and Appreciation for Employees
Showing support and appreciation for employees can go a long way in improving their mental health and wellbeing. Employees who feel valued are more likely to report better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and motivation, compared to those who do not feel valued by their employers. (9) Having a CEO, a Director of Nursing, or some other trusted person in management walk the floors at least once a week to recognize the hard work being done can help raise morale and improve employee health and wellbeing. (10)
Trinity Health System in Steubenville, Ohio, is one example of an organization that has developed a highly successful employee recognition program. (11) To acknowledge the efforts of its 1,927 employees, Trinity Health System created an Employee Reward and Recognition Team to manage the organization’s Employee of the Month and Employee of the Year awards. Each month, managers are asked to publicly comment about what makes the chosen employee outstanding, as well as send three thank you notes to staff to recognize outstanding performance. This information is recorded in the performance management system and is incorporated into employee evaluations. In addition, the Employee Reward and Recognition Team organizes social events such as an annual picnic and holiday party, and doctors also donate prizes and rewards for employees who are performing well. (11)
5. Prioritize Employee Health Programs
Comprehensive employee wellness programs focus not only on an employee’s mental and emotional health, but also on physical health. While employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and hazard-free workplace, they also have abundant opportunities to promote individual health and foster a healthy work environment. (12)
By offering employee-centered health services such as free immunizations and vaccinations, and by making it convenient for employees to receive care, healthcare organizations can have a positive impact on the wellbeing of their employees. (12) For example, Employee Health departments might consider going directly to healthcare employees to offer influenza or COVID-19 vaccinations, instead of requiring employees to take time out of their workday or make an appointment to go get vaccinated. Simple tactics such as improving access to care can go a long way in ensuring success in employee health efforts across an organization.
By recognizing mental health challenges and providing mental health support, fostering open communication, showing appreciation for employees, and prioritizing employee health programs, healthcare organizations can play an active role in protecting healthcare worker’s health and wellbeing.
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- Khanal P, Devkota N, Dahal M, Paudel K, Joshi D. Mental health impacts among health workers during COVID-19 in a low resource setting: a cross-sectional survey from Nepal. Globalization Health. (2020) 16:89. doi: 10.1186/s12992-020-00621-z
- Woo T, Ho R, Tang A, Tam W. Global prevalence of burnout symptoms among nurses: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatric Res. (2020) 123:9–20. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2019.12.015