Why It Matters
Both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders need to address workers’ feelings of fear and anxiety, and possible frustration and anger, while also providing hope, a sense of togetherness, and a forward-facing outlook.
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How Leaders Can Promote Health Care Workforce Well-Being

By IHI Multimedia Team | Thursday, December 10, 2020
How Leaders Can Promote Health Care Workforce Well-Being Photo by Anton | Unsplash

A Guide to Promoting Health Care Workforce Well-Being During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic provides ideas and lessons learned to tackle burnout, fatigue, and emotional distress. The following excerpt aims to support leaders at all levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for health care leaders beyond their typical responsibilities. Leaders must quickly assess and provide direction for clinical care, ensure that system- and individual-level interventions are in place, and effectively communicate with health care workers and those in their communities, among other priorities. Crisis events like the pandemic call for a somewhat different leadership skill set. Tolerance for uncertainty is one important leadership skill in this situation. Another is to identify and acknowledge the myriad stressors on the workforce, exacerbated by the pandemic, in order to provide better support to workers to mitigate these stressors. It’s important to also recognize that leaders’ roles and responsibilities during the pandemic may evolve over time. In the early days of coronavirus, it was important for leaders to be visible, offer transparent communication, and project calm and empathy. As we move into other phases of the pandemic, different leadership skills may be needed. Divisiveness can emerge, as it may become clear that some mistakes were made early on. After the unity of the initial crisis response, blame and frustration may arise among staff members. Both during and after the crisis, leaders need to acknowledge and address workers’ feelings of fear and anxiety, and possible frustration and anger, while also providing hope, a sense of togetherness, and a forward-facing outlook. Once we move beyond the crisis, leaders need to engage workers in discussions to retrospectively focus on opportunities to make improvements that were perhaps not possible to implement during the crisis. In times of crisis, especially, effective health care leaders implement the practices described below.

  • Meet the needs of the workforce: Leaders need to do everything within their power to ensure that the immediate needs of the workforce are addressed — whether that’s providing food, physical PPE, childcare resources, transportation support, ensuring the availability of a broad array of mental health services, or other types of support. Longer term, it’s imperative for leaders to ensure that all health care workers earn a living wage and have good health insurance that covers mental health services.
  • Communicate effectively and openly: Leadership communication during this crisis is of the utmost importance. Communications and messaging — which have a profound impact on community well-being and also influence perceptions of risk — should be honest, authentic, and regular. While outward communication of timely and accurate information is critical, leaders also need to listen to the questions and concerns of their workforce and communities.
    • A good option for creating more effective two-way communication, with health care workers in particular, is to establish formalized listening sessions.
    • Using appropriate humor and telling stories can be helpful communication mechanisms.
    • Ask questions such as: How do you feel about this? What’s your biggest hope? What would help you know?
  • Be vulnerable: Good leaders acknowledge their own vulnerability. They exhibit humility, curiosity, inclusion, and empathy.
  • Ask what’s going well: To overcome the negativity bias, ask people what is working. What went well today that we can build on? Conversations can help generate trust.
  • Normalize help-seeking behavior: Leaders need to maintain proactive outreach and support for health care workers and remove the stigma associated with seeking help, particularly for mental health support. Try to normalize help-seeking behavior as a sign of strength and not weakness. Worry about the workers you don’t hear from more than those you do hear from.
  • Acknowledge loss, and look to the future: Leaders must strike a delicate balance: openly acknowledging grief and facilitating processes that honor losses, while also offering hope and a path forward. They need to seek opportunities to identify and disseminate learnings, and reinforce that eventually the crisis will end and the vast majority of the workforce will be resilient. Resilient people have a “sense of coherence” and a level of understanding about what is required of them. They find their situation manageable and derive meaning from the work. Leaders who create a sense of coherence among the workforce are better able to guide workers through the crisis in a healthy way.

Authors of a 2020 JAMA article noted five requests from health care professionals to their organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic; leaders should endeavor to honor these requests:

  • Hear Me — Listen and act on lived experience to understand and address concerns to the extent organizations and leaders are able.
  • Protect Me — Reduce the risk of acquiring COVID-19 and/or being a transmitter to family.
  • Prepare Me — Provide training and support for high-quality care in different settings.
  • Support Me — Acknowledge demands and human limitations in times of great patient need.
  • Care for Me — Provide holistic support for team members and their families, if isolation is required (or other sources of distress occur).

For more ideas, lessons, and tools, download A Guide to Promoting Health Care Workforce Well-Being During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic for free. The guide was funded by the Well Being Trust. 

You may also be interested in:

IHI’s Conversation and Action Guide to Support Staff Well-Being and Joy in Work During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Using Tools to Measure Well-Being in the Time of COVID-19

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