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Culture shift: Post COVID, employee wellness and safety must be a top priority

Gabriel Perna | March 17, 2021

In a multi-part series, Health Evolution is examining the future of the health care workforce. As we reach the one-year mark of when the pandemic begun disrupting lives across America, how has the virus changed the mindset of CEOs and organizational leaders in terms of how they view their employees and the skills they need to cultivate? For part three, we’re looking at the renewed importance of employee wellness, safety and culture in health care. 

Part one: Virtual care, borderless recruiting and remote working 

Part two: Can community health workers and empathy improve inequity and reduce disparities? 

In a year of increased disparities of care, packed ICUs, economic uncertainty, and a lot of death—mental health has never seemed more important.  

But health care leaders aren’t just focused on the mental health of their patients, although that’s clearly becoming a priority. What’s increasingly important is employee wellbeing. In a recent survey, every health care executive interviewed by Deloitte said they were concerned over their employees’ mental and spiritual health.  

Every single one.  

“What we saw during the pandemic was a whole rethinking from a culture perspective because the entire spectrum of people’s lives really mattered. We saw a change in things that would typically be considered benefits and how those ways of supporting people completely changed,” says Jennifer Radin, Chief Innovation Officer for Deloitte’s Health Care practice. “Some of the things health care workers did to support, especially clinical workers, whether it was getting them hotel rooms, food, laundry created a new kind of relationship where they weren’t just coming in and punching a timecard, but really part of the fabric of the organization.” 

Yet, there is more work to be done. According to a new survey from Ginger, there is a huge gap in how CEOs perceive what they are doing for employee mental health and how the employees themselves view the efforts from their organization. The survey found that 96 percent of CEOs think they are doing enough for mental health but only 69 percent of employees agree. Another survey, from Willis Towers Watson, found that 62 percent of organizations are making improving their mental health benefits and stress management programs a top priority and 93 percent say behavioral health will be an organizational priority.  

Going forward, experts are certain that organizations will have to act on these issues to attract top talent. CEOs must create a cultural environment that thoroughly addresses employee wellbeing and safety, not just with lip service but tangible actions. 

“We’re talking about a culture change when we’re talking about wellbeing. They are not just programs, initiatives, and libraries of resources. It’s creating an environment where it’s OK to talk about feelings and health in the workplace. A recent survey found 30 percent of workers fear discussing mental wellness topics in the workplace. They fear they will lose their job,” Ann Powell, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Bristol Myers Squibb, said during a recent event for The Conference Board. She put the onus on leaders to set the example.  

“The best leaders are out there saying, ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ Those leaders need to ask the right questions, encourage the right solutions, share examples and be out there in front of others. More employees are looking to their organizations as that trusted source of stability and information,” Powell said.  

Wellness initiatives  

One organization that isn’t waiting to act on employee wellbeing and wellness is Tucson Medical Center, a nonprofit regional hospital with more than 600 beds. Judy Rich, the hospital’s CEO who came on board amid another crisis in 2007 when it was losing more than $1 million per month, said Arizona has been the sixth hardest hit state in the U.S. It has caused significant impact to the organization’s 4,500 employees.  

“What we have now is a workforce with real PTSD and workforce, primarily with the frontline caregivers, who are so physically and emotionally tired that they’ve even there even having a difficult time articulating how they feel. A lot of them are withdrawing. Our turnover has gone up in nursing and we are pulling every possible support system out that we can to keep them going,” says Rich. 

What has that meant? Most prominently, Tucson Medical Center opened a virtual school, which allows school-aged children of frontline workers to do distance learning in a group setting (socially distant of course) so they can have live interactions with other kids. The school allows parents to know their kids are learning and socializing, while focused on their jobs. Rich says it started when she was listening to a mother who told her that her nine-year-old child had become depressed.  

That’s not all—telehealth counseling, face-to-face counseling, meals from the cafeteria 24 hours per day, home delivery laundry (35 pounds worth per employee), free oil changes, and increased communication are among the other supports Tucson Medical Center is offering employees. The system even launched a time away option for critical care nurses who have been the hardest hit and unable to take vacations.  

“We’ve offered a program for them away from the hospital, at a local retreat, where they can spend a couple of days taking care of themselves. Getting a massage. Speaking to counselors. Taking classes on mediation. Starting to deal with the trauma that they’ve been through,” says Rich.    

It’s starting to become okay and expected for [health care workers] to raise their hand and say, ‘I need time in the tranquility tent’ or ‘I can't do something because I need to go sleep and take care of myself or my family.’

Jen Radin, Chief innovation officer for Deloitte's Health Care practice

Other companies are taking a similar tact in terms of providing support for employeesIn the pharma world, Abbot offered free tutoring to employees’ children and Merck conducted focus groups and gathered wellness data on its 70,000 employees. Coming out of the pandemic, Rich says the onus is on health care leaders to put the effort in themselves to create this kind of culture and take care of employees. They can’t rely on anyone else to do the work for them.  

Some experts, like Accenture’s Chief Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook, say that it won’t just be critical in helping organizations move past the pandemic, but it will also be important to attracting the best people into an organization. A survey from Prudential found that 73 percent of employees say benefits are a big reason they would stay at a job, up from 59 percent the prior year.  

Companies that really understand you can lead with values and create value to a more significant extent will win in the talent market. Creating sustainable change in your workforce, in your workforce strategies, including your wellbeing strategies, I think are going to put more distance between the leaders and the laggards,” Shook said at the Conference Board event. 

Safety first 

Another challenge in employee wellness is the safety factor. A survey from Envoy, a workplace software company, found that 66 percent of employees say they are worried about their health and safety when it comes to returning to the workplace. Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP), which started a new enforcement agenda to target establishments in health care and other industries that have an increased potential for employee exposure to COVID.  

While some sectors in health care are still able to keep employees at home, hospitals like Methodist Hospital of Southern California obviously don’t have that option. This is one reason why the hospital invested in a contact tracing technology, an ID tag from a company called SwipeSense, that tracks where employees have been and who they’ve come into contact with that has COVID-19. 

Methodist’s Chief Strategy Officer, Cliff Daniels, says the tool has helped with workforce management. Before implementing it, Methodist had to rely on manual processes for contact tracing and it was one reason why absenteeism exploded. There were times where we couldn’t staff beyond 30 ICU bed, he says.  

To find warm bodies that are certified for critical care, we are paying—and still paying—upwards of $190 per hour, which is three times what we typically spend. This enabled us to mitigate the employee absenteeism, although it can’t stop it completely, but the contact tracing tool made people feel safe and ensured our ability to keep staff and patients safe, and stay open,” Daniels says.  

While there was some concern from employees on being watched, Methodist made it clear there were no sensors and no regular reporting back to the C-Suite on employee whereabouts. The technology simply reports if an employee has come in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive for more than the allotted time, he says. In general, employees have welcomed usage of the tool because it makes them feel safer at the workplace, he says.  

We need to take care of people first and they have to be safe when they come here. Contact tracing was a tool we saw as incredibly critical, particularly at this moment in time, which enabled our ability to keep our patients and our staff safe. Our employees expressed concern when this thing started, ‘How are you keeping me safe?’ This is one of the ways we’ve responded,” Daniels says.  

Culture  

When thinking of the future health care workforce, with increased focus in technical skills, empathy and wellness, culture is the glue that drives these changes forward, says Radin. In Deloitte’s survey, organizational culture was listed as a top concern for employees and executives. The reason, Radin says, is the fact the cultural shifts from the past year have been significant. She cites the example Powell mentioned of health care providers historically being hesitant to say they were overwhelmed or stressed.  

“What we’ve seen is a cultural shift that I frankly don’t believe would have happened without the pandemic. It’s starting to become okay and expected for [health care workers] to raise their hand and say, ‘I need time in the tranquility tent’ or ‘I can’t do something because I need to go sleep and take care of myself or my family.’ That is now okay and resources are being made available,” Radin says.  

But in order for these cultural shifts to remain beyond the pandemic, experts encourage CEOs and leaders to get involved, push forward on changes, provide resources and programs and, ultimately, listen to what employees are telling them.  

Ask and listen to your workforce regarding what they need, but also what they value. And for the actions that you do put in place, connect it back to their feedback and thank them. This builds the trust and the reinforcement that you care. That’s so foundational to this work,” said Powell.   

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email at gabrielp@healthevolution.com or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna