Finding Your Healthcare Organization’s “New Normal” in the Wake of COVID-19

Posted on June 22, 2020 by Adam Frei, MS, LPC, CEAP

Healthcare business professionals_smallThe COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our daily life. Healthcare organizations across the country have made difficult decisions to keep employees safe and ensure the longevity of their organization in response to the health risks and government orders to combat this highly infectious disease.

As more states begin to discuss taking steps to “reopen the economy,” healthcare organizations will be met with a new set of challenges not only for healthcare providers who will continue to be on the frontlines; but also those providers and employees who have transition out of their previous work environment or have been furloughed. Although there is no “one size fits all” approach for how to move towards our new normal, we hope the following information will help you decide what is best for your organization and all employees.

Be Prepared

In an ever-evolving landscape, there may not seem to be the smallest possibility of preparation. There are many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent response by local, state and federal governments that are entirely outside of our control as healthcare leaders and organizations. Especially in difficult times with significant changes occurring every day, we must be aware of what we can and cannot control.

By embracing a preparatory mindset verses a reactionary mindset, your organization can enact policies and procedures that will support the safety and longevity of your organization. Your organization’s plan should be developed with the input from employees at every level of your organization. For employees who have been furloughed or transitioned to telework, returning to shared workspaces will feel different for everyone. For some it will be a relief to return to some assemblance of their previous “normal” and for others the idea of being near others will cause significant distress.

For more guidance on best practices addressing care for non-COVID cases, the CDC has provided information to support your healthcare organization’s preparations.

Transitioning from Teleworking

In response to the CDC recommendation to physically distance ourselves from others and state-level workplace, school and daycare closures, employees who could effectively work from home, did so. The transition to telework has led to significant changes in what many workplaces look like, which will likely have a lasting impression on the shared office work environment. If parts of your workforce have transitioned to primarily remote working, you may be asking if or when those employees will return to their onsite offices.

If you are considering having your temporary telework staff return to their shared office space, there are numerous questions that need to be answered to ensure a safe and effective work environment.

  1. What is your state’s current policy, orders and/or recommendations for shared workspaces?
  2. What is your plan for testing within the workplace? (what symptoms will you test for?)
  3. Will employees be required to return to the workplace?
    1. What will be your policy for employees who are not comfortable returning to the workplace?
  4. What physical changes need to be made to your workplace to ensure appropriate social distancing?
  5. What is the contact information for your local public health department? (to assist in contact tracing)
  6. What is your action plan if restrictions on shared workspaces are reinstated?
  7. What is your action plan if an employee becomes sick or tests positive for COVID-19?
  8. Will employees be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE)?
    1. What PPE will be required?
    2. How will employees obtain and maintain their PPE?
    3. Will employees face disciplinary action for not wearing PPE?
  9. What are your cleaning & disinfecting procedures? (see CDC guidelines)

These questions and many more will need to be answered to ensure that employees feel comfortable and safe returning to the workplace. By collaborating with your temporary telework employees and furloughed employees who will be coming back to work, you can address possible blind spots that may exist in your workplace that could impact employee safety. Additionally, it will be important to connect with your local public health department to ensure that they can effectively and efficiently trace any possible outbreak that may impact your onsite office spaces.

Three Quick Tips:

  • Create a voluntary “Return to Office” Committee to ensure employee needs are heard and met
  • Establish your communication strategy for changes in workplace procedures
  • Connect with other similar organizations to discuss what’s working and best practices

Returning from Furlough and Redeployment

Healthcare organizations who had to make the difficult decision to furlough parts of their workforce to ensure financial stability now may have the opportunity to return these employees to the workplace as non-urgent and voluntary medical procedures resume. Although employees were aware of the policies and procedures that were in place prior to COVID-19, numerous changes will likely have occurred to ensure your organization is complying the requirements to reopen in many states.

  • Employees should be provided with advanced notice that they will be requested to return to the workplace or their regular department if they had been redeployed. Your employees will have varying responses to returning to the workplace while there may still be a risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • To ensure that your employees are engaged, happy and healthy, assess their needs to feel comfortable returning to their role. Establishing an alternative PTO policy and additional support should an employee test positive for COVID-19 can go a long way to dissuade fears and concerns with returning to the workplace.
  • Prior to returning to their regular duties, employees should receive an in-depth review of any changes that have occurred in how they will go about their workday. If your returning employees will be teleworking, ensure that they have the necessary equipment to do so.
  • Whenever possible, it is important to take the process of returning to one’s role slow and communicate with your employees who will be returning to work regularly so that they know you are available for support and guidance when needed. 

Employee Grief and Loss

Healthcare workers and clinicians are facing a significant increase in patient deaths. With such immense loss on top of the significant life changes that have occurred to help slow the spread, there will be feelings of grief and loss, not only for your frontline workers but also for your entire staff. Your frontline clinicians will need support and space for them to process the significant grief and loss that they are experiencing daily. VITAL WorkLife in-the-moment telephonic support, available 24/7, as well as virtual or face-to-face counseling can be extremely valuable for your clinicians in helping them cope and grieve.

In addition to the impact that the loss of lives will have on our healthcare workers, COVID-19 has introduced a new type of grief for employees to process; the grief associated with having to miss, cancel or postpone an important life event such as weddings, birthday celebrations, graduation ceremonies or the birth of a loved one’s child.

Often, as is the case with the passing of a loved one, we use rituals that provide a structure for processing our grief, but unfortunately, even these rituals have been disrupted by the need to stay socially distance. For your frontline workers who are struggling with significant losses on a day to day basis and your staff whose lives have been upended by COVID-19 here are some ways that you can support you them and help them process the grief that they are or will be experiencing.

Check-in – Grief is an emotional roller coaster. With the added uncertainty employees are dealing with daily, the grief they are feeling will have a more significant impact on them and that impact may look different from day to day. It is important that leaders check-in with their employees on a regular basis to ensure they are functioning as well as possible, whether they are working from home or in the workplace. If you notice something that feels out of place regarding an employee’s behavior, gently address it by utilizing open statements based on your perceptions such as: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been getting your reports in on time for the last week. Is there something I can help with?” or “It looks like you’ve been calling in for your Monday morning shift for the past 3 weeks. Can we talk about it?”

Rituals – Whatever previous rituals your organization engaged in regarding the passing of an employee’s loved one, find ways to continue those rituals (send flowers, allow coworkers to attend funerals virtually). Create new rituals to show your support such as donating to a non-profit in memory of the individual who passed. Find ways to celebrate the lives of patients who have passed not only to support the deceased’s loved ones but also your clinicians who are in need of a way to express how they have been impacted by the loss themselves.

Create Space – When possible, allow for flexibility regarding work schedules to allow staff to be able to connect with supports and make time to grieve. Especially in the case of the loss of a life event, it may be helpful if an employee is able to take time off around the time their event was previously scheduled. Offer reassurances of organizational support when their life event will be rescheduled to decrease worries and feelings of anxiety. Allow staff opportunities to work from home while working through their grief to give them more time before they must “face their co-workers”. For staff will limited flexibility in their work schedule, provide physical space for them to decompress or debrief with others or mental health professionals whether that occurs in-person or through tele-counseling.

We Can Help

However your organization is being impacted by the effects of COVID-19, VITAL WorkLife is here to help. Not only will we support your clinicians in processing their grief and coping with the stress and anxiety associated with a significant health crisis, but we’re also here for you as a supervisor, manager and healthcare leader.

Our Senior Consultants are available 24/7 for supervisory consultations and coaching to help you find the right path forward for your workgroup or organization. In addition, we craft personalized consulting solutions to support the clinicians in your organization. Whatever your needs may be now or in the future VITAL WorkLife has resources to assist you. Contact us at 877.731.3949 or at VITALWorkLife.com.

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