Healthcare providers such as Advocate Health, Ochsner Health and Inspira Health are turning their focus to long-term, creative and cost-effective investments to support employee mental health.
The COVID-19 pandemic heightened existing challenges surrounding labor shortages and employee burnout. Scrambling to accommodate healthcare workers suffering through the crisis taught employers key lessons that inform new approaches to employee well-being and mental health, executives said.
“I think, for many, it was business as usual. Like, this is part of what to expect with a career in healthcare, that we need to meet our patients’ needs,” said Dr. Erin Ney, expert associate partner in the healthcare practice at the consulting firm Bain & Co. The pandemic changed that way of thinking.
With greater attention on employee satisfaction and mental health, health system leaders are ramping up programs that existed before the pandemic, investing in new initiatives and making organizational changes to destigmatize mental illness. Executives said they rely on employee feedback to determine what strategies work best.
“During the pandemic, we didn’t have time to breathe, honestly. This has really been, post-pandemic, ‘How do we support people and move forward?” said Amy Mansue, president and CEO of Mullica Hill, New Jersey-based Inspira Health.
Pressures on healthcare workers have been mounting for years and the COVID-19 outbreak worsened matters, said Dr. Gail Gazelle, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “The pandemic has really accelerated levels of burnout and levels, sadly, of depression, anxiety, suicidality in physicians, and physicians leaving the workforce prematurely,” she said.
As of July, one-quarter of clinicians were considering switching careers, nearly 90% of whom cited burnout, according to a Bain survey. “As health system leadership has committed to patient safety and quality of patient care, it needs to be front and center as part of their mission that they are equally going to make sure they are prioritizing the health and well-being of their workforce,” said Ney, who co-authored the report.
In addition to a moral case for investing in employee mental health, there’s also a business case for it, said Dr. Nigel Girgrah, chief wellness officer at Ochsner Health. Employee wellness is linked to better quality and safety and to financial performance, he said.
Still, health systems must carefully consider how to allocate resources during a challenging time. Last year’s financial reports showed health systems’ profits plummeting, operating expenses climbing and labor challenges persisting. “We just have to be thoughtful in what we’re offering,” Girgrah said.
One size doesn’t fit all
Health systems are experimenting with different offerings to determine which to expand and which to abandon.
Ochsner’s Professional Experience Program launched in 2019 and accelerated during the pandemic. The voluntary benefit is available to physicians and advanced practice providers at the New Orleans-based nonprofit health system who may be experiencing burnout.
Professional Experience Program staff looks for root causes of burnout—from how workers use electronic health records to their team dynamics—and creates 90-day plans with actionable solutions, Girgrah said. The health system has seen positive results based on employee surveys, he said. As part of the initiative, Ochsner also created short videos on resilience and developed a four-hour virtual resilience course and now offers an eight-hour, in-person version.
At Inspira Health, leaders are encouraging open dialogue about mental health in the wake of the worst stretches of the pandemic, Mansue said. “I don’t think we were doing those things before in the same way or having these conversations,” she said.
A committee of staff at the nonprofit health system is creating a toolkit to help managers facilitate discussions at the departmental level on physical, mental, social and spiritual wellness. Inspira is also arranging wellness days at its facilities this year, the first of which took place last month when employees got health screenings and stress relief with the help of massage chairs and pet therapy.
Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health is looking for ways to help clinicians apply what they do for patients to themselves. “How can we help from an organizational perspective turn that care internally for our employees, and how can we support them throughout?” said Melissa Reeves, system director for well-being at CommonSpirit.
The nonprofit, Catholic health system is steering programs based on employee feedback, Reeves said. Throughout the pandemic, workers have been utilizing employee assistance programs and mental health offerings but not always accessing timely care, she said.
In an effort to make its offerings more accessible, CommonSpirit launched its MyWellness hub last year, which offers its well-being initiatives in one place. Employees earn points for activities completed throughout the year and receive financial awards, such as gift cards or health account contributions.
Low-cost and making a difference
Health systems can also invest in changes that don’t carry big price tags. Destigmatizing mental health in how health systems communicate with employees is one of those low-cost initiatives.
Atrium Health, now part of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Advocate Health, put more focus on existing programs, such as its Code Lavender initiative, during the pandemic. Workers can call the code when they’re experiencing mental or emotional strain and need breaks.
“We offered [that at Atrium Health] before, but we were not as intentional about making sure that leaders are on the floor and letting employees know that it is OK that you’re struggling in some way,” said Jim Dunn, executive vice president and chief people and culture officer for Advocate Health.
CommonSpirit’s piloting a similar program called Code Kindness at one of its hospitals, through which peers call on trained professionals, including spiritual care staff, to help colleagues in crisis. The health system is looking to expand it across the company.
Shared struggles with mental health heightened by the pandemic led Girgrah to write candid quarterly messages to the Ochsner staff about his own depression and his frustration with COVID-19 being politicized, he said. Girgrah received hundreds of replies from employees with similar stories, he said.
Continuing to shift the culture of employee health and wellness and navigating challenges related to employee wellness programs are essential to providing the best care to patients, said Marlene Fisher, employee health and wellness director at Inspira Health. “It’s awareness that we have to make ourselves … a priority. Otherwise, we can’t stay in business. We can’t continue to care for our communities if we’re not OK—all of us,” she said.