Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus

By The SHSMD Team posted 03-30-2021 04:03 PM


For over three decades, the health care industry has faced rapid change and operational, financial and market challenges. But at no time in recent memory have the demands on health care leaders been more exhausting and protracted than in 2020. Even the most seasoned leaders and frontline professionals have struggled given the uncertainty, stress, and personal safety and security issues associated with COVID-19. And concerns surrounding racial disparities and political division have only exacerbated the problem.

So, what are leaders to do, both to boost their own resiliency and to better support their teams? Burl Stamp, former health system CEO and authority on staff engagement, will be leading a workshop series in April on effective leadership in these unprecedented times. Among the topics Stamp will explore in the workshop are the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on workforce climate and staff engagement, ways to better support frontline staff and effective goal setting.

Engaging Teams

During stressful, emotionally draining times, employees need a place to safely vent. If organizations do not provide it, the frustration often worsens and goes underground. The stress of the pandemic may make staff meetings uncomfortable. But because team members need to talk and to connect with one another, this is also the time when they are extremely important.

“The reaction I might get from some leaders when insisting that staff meetings are more important now than ever is, ‘Are you crazy?’ Yes, staff meetings take some thought and time to be effective,” Stamp says. “But team meetings are the only place where staff have a chance to have a focused conversation with all their colleagues. That is, when we shut up and let them talk.”

With most meetings going virtual, today it is also easier for staff to attend meetings from home, eliminating one of the biggest obstacles to attendance for a 24/7 team. The flexibility that a virtual meeting provides for staff who work 12-hour shifts is something health care leaders should consider maintaining even after it is safe to meet in person again.

Supporting Staff on the Front Lines

“For leaders, it is easy to get consumed by today’s challenges, believing that when the pandemic finally fades everything will get back to ‘normal,’” Stamp says. “But how we support staff in 2021 will have a significant impact on workforce culture long after COVID-19 is just a sad memory.”

Stamp suggests several strategies health care leaders can adopt to better support frontline staff dealing with stress, exhaustion and burnout as the result of the pandemic.

Talk openly and frequently about what employees are experiencing. Listening is always among the most important skills for leaders to develop to effectively support their teams. In today’s environment, it is even more essential. Encourage staff members to talk about what they are experiencing and their feelings about the stress it creates. As a leader, always express sincere gratitude for the sacrifices your team is making to support the organization and patients during the pandemic.

Walk in their shoes. If leaders are not visible and experiencing firsthand what’s happening with customers, staff usually assume they have no idea what’s really going on. Connected leaders understand the power of taking a shift, stepping up leadership rounding and being available when team members need them most.

Emphasize the power of empathy. Empathy is always the most potent way to connect with people, and today it can also be a fundamental coping skill. Empathy may be the most important essential competency that leaders can model for their teams. When leaders try to understand the struggles of their employees, they help staff appreciate the power of empathy in dealing with stressful situations.

Rethinking Goal Setting

For health care organizations focused largely on operational survival this past year, “hour to hour” may best describe their planning horizons. The stress and immediate challenges of the pandemic threw a wrench in the disciplined, predictable annual goal-setting processes of most health care systems. But the pandemic should not cause organizations to toss aside goals and the process of goal setting, particularly at the work group level.

“Especially during the pandemic, health care leaders should be as clear about what they are not going to do as they are about their priorities,” Stamp says. “Organizations should adapt goal-setting processes in ways that communicate to staff that leaders understand the stress they’re under and appreciate the sacrifices they’re making. To empower staff, involving employees in setting ‘leading’ work group goals is one of the best ways to achieve this priority.”

Striving for Effective Leadership

All of us have experienced a sense of powerlessness this past year because of COVID-19. For health care professionals, that frustration has been magnified tenfold. While leaders cannot magically reduce the problems caused by the pandemic, they can include staff members in problem-solving and decision-making. Especially now, empowering staff by listening to their frustrations and their ideas for addressing them is essential.

Learning More

Burl Stamp will be leading Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus, a SHSMD Education Workshop series that starts on April 15. This three-part workshop will explore recent research around the changing workplace climate and specific leadership practices that can combat disengagement and burnout at all levels of the organization. Register here.

The AHA Physician Alliance recently released the Well-Being Playbook 2.0 to help hospital and health system leaders support their teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. The update includes curated resources specific to COVID-19 on suicide prevention and operationalizing peer support and a guide to walk leaders through well-being program development and execution.

Human-Centered Leadership: A Key to Frictionless Health Care During and After COVID-19 is a webinar recording about mastering this leadership model to strengthen care team resilience, create frictionless health care experiences, and pave the way for connected healing ecosystems now and beyond the pandemic.

Leading and Supporting Teams During COVID-19, part of last year’s SHSMD COVID-19 Conversation Series, looks at the importance of supporting and engaging frontline workers and how a focus on core human values can help strengthen culture and create connections among diverse teams.

Thought Leader Forum 2020 — Using the Road to Recovery to Build the Health Care System We Need is a report offering key considerations drawn from a forum of expert panelists who are effectively planning ahead to facilitate financial recovery with a strategic focus, including capital strategy, expense management, growth and investment.

Futurescan 2021-2026: Health Care Trends and Implications is the annual publication available to SHSMD member that explores key forces transforming the future of health care. Nonmembers, learn more about SHSMD and join. SHSMD members can also share resources, ideas and questions with peers in the MySHSMD community.