Hospitals shift focus to employee well-being

Pandemic prompts new ways to engage with and support overwhelmed workers.
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University of Michigan Health-West offers employees several wellness opportunities, ranging from a female physician group to events for all staff. Courtesy University of Michigan Health-West

As West Michigan slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and employees are re-evaluating what makes a healthy workplace. In no other space is this more important, or its impact more clear, than in the health care field.

In the wake of the pandemic’s devastation, overworked and overwhelmed health care workers are looking for change, and employers are listening, implementing new strategies and spaces to help support, retain and attract employees.

BHSH Spectrum Health West Michigan, the Grand Rapids area’s largest health system, has been focused on employee mental health and well-being since before the pandemic, putting in place team member programs to boost employee morale and camaraderie over the past three and a half years.

As hospital leaders watched staff from physicians to nurses struggle with the physical, mental and emotional effects of working through the pandemic, however, it became clear that programs were no longer enough.

“We went from a place where it’s just hard work, you know, being a caregiver is hard (to where) it’s now really hard,” said Spectrum Health West Michigan president Darryl Elmouchi. “There’s burnout across the entire industry and we want to do everything we can to limit that.”

With this in mind, as Spectrum Health Butterworth recently broke ground on a new outpatient facility, part of which will be dedicated space for employees to congregate to relax and recharge. Elmouchi said he sees the place as an area where employees can read a book, plug in their computers and get together to eat and relax.

“It’s a place where you can walk out of the acute environment, the hospital environment, and end up in a place that’s a little more calming,” Elmouchi said. “So, I think you’ll see a lot of people from the hospital come over and obviously anyone who works in that building of which there’ll be many, so it’s going to be essentially free and open to all of our employees, but I think you’ll see mostly those groups come over.”

While the physical space is in the works, Spectrum also has been using other methods to help relieve employee stress and enhance the work environment, such as adding massage chairs throughout hospital locations and renovating a cafeteria area to include more private spaces for employees to find quiet time.

One of the hospital’s employee programs, called Break to Connect, has been particularly helpful to facilitate personal connections in a virtual environment, allowing those who work from home and those in the office environment to collaborate together in real time.

“Even though I’m at home, I’m able to take advantage of some of the wellness initiatives,” said Ellen Bristol, corporate public relations manager, Spectrum Health. “I can sign up to join in the Break to Connect session and take a yoga class, or I can take a class that gives me some instruction about ergonomics for how to sit at my desk so that I don’t have a problem and how to stretch. They’ve even done a scavenger hunt online. It gets people moving and reminds them that you don’t have to just sit at your desk all day long.”

According to Elmouchi, Spectrum Health also has recently expanded its internal wellness grant program for employees to include nurses as well as physicians. The program was conceived as a way to help leadership connect with employee needs and give employees more power over their own work environment.

As a result of growing employee burnout in nursing and inpatient spaces, Elmouchi said the program was expanded to include opportunities for nurses, giving them better control and allowing them to voice needs and changes that need to be made.

The wellness grant program enables employees who see a need in the workplace or have an idea to better their work environment to apply to Spectrum Health leadership for a grant to implement that idea over a trial period. After the trial period, which usually lasts around 6 months, the idea, if successful, is then scaled to the rest of the hospital as needed.

Elmouchi said this program has helped leadership give power back to employees working in spaces that leaders cannot access. He added that the program has proven to be popular and effective, helping Spectrum Health uncover some solid ideas in the process.

At University of Michigan Health-West (UMHW), Raki Pai, president of the University of Michigan Health Partners and chief population officer, has headed the health system’s Office of Professional Well Being (OPWB) with a similar goal of empowering and supporting health care workers.

Pai

The OPWB is a newer initiative for the health system and was born out of a clear need during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide better support for employees. According to Pai, the organization realized that it was unable to point to specific things that it was doing for its employees to support their well-being and realized that needed to change.

“We created the Office of Professional Well Being in response to the pandemic and realizing that we weren’t doing enough to support our provider community and let them know, for those that are suffering with burnout or mental health issues, it’s OK to talk about it,” Pai said. “It’s OK to get help. All the diseases that happen in our patients like depression, anxiety, hypertension, happen in the physician and provider community, as well. We’re not immune to any of it because we’re knowledgeable about these diseases. So that’s why we did this.”

Pai and his team use a Mayo Clinic wellness index to measure employee well-being. The wellness index asks employees: Am I feeling overwhelmed? Am I feeling burned out? Do I feel suicidal? Do I feel like my employer is supporting me? Do I enjoy what I do?

Based on the answers to those questions, Pai said the health system takes its employees’ collective ‘pulse’ and measures how well they are being cared for.

In response to employee need, UMHW created the well-being office and founded it on three core principles: creating a culture of compassion, positive practices and personal growth.

Pai said the “culture of compassion” aspect focuses on supporting empathy in the provider/patient dynamic. As patient load has increased due to the high volume brought by the pandemic, it becomes harder for providers to invest in those they are caring for.

“We should never look at a patient as a dollar sign,” he said. “We don’t want to dehumanize that relationship and when you’re feeling burned out, (that’s) really, really easy.”

The principle of positive practice focuses on reducing the minutiae that can contribute to employees’ feelings of being overwhelmed. Pai said that aspect of the OPWB’s work tries to make physicians’ and nurses’ jobs easier through offering help understanding technology in the workplace as well as implementing strategies such as voice-recognition technology to take providers’ patient notes to help save time and ease provider burden.

The third principle, that of personal growth, focuses on investing in employees by giving them the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.

“If you invest in the community, they feel valued. If they feel valued, they feel respected, and they’re going to take better care of their patients,” Pai said. 

One of the OPWB’s ways of supporting its physicians and care practitioners is through employee resource groups. These groups include groups based around common interests and topics. One such group, the Female Physician Camaraderie Group, has proven to be highly successful in the health system’s employee population.

“When we looked at that well-being data from the Mayo Clinic and on our own population, we quickly realized that our female physicians were more distressed than their counterparts,” Pai said. “And this wasn’t just one meeting or one month or one quarter, it was persistently high.”

This increased distress could have been caused by increased patient demand on female physicians due to an expectation of a higher investment or care level, as well as other societal norms placed on female physicians.

With that in mind, the team started a female physician group.

“It originally started with a very small number of people that came together, maybe 10 signed up and six came together,” Pai said. “And then over the last, 6, 9, 12 months, we slowly have grown that to more and more people.

“They’re doing fun things, simple wellness things like yoga and tea, and they’re talking about non-medical issues, parenting and things of that nature. They’re just getting to know one another.”

Pai said that since implementing the strategies his team has been focusing on the health system’s wellness index reports that have shown significant relief in employee stress. With that in mind, leadership at UMHW will be continuing these programs and resources for employees.

“(The pandemic) was a chronic stress, chronic fatigue scenario for the whole provider community,” Pai said. “Some of them (providers) are forced to work mandatory shifts and may get called up from the clinics to go to the hospital. All these things were stressful. It had an impact, and you could see that in our well-being or distressed data and so we wanted to make sure we supported this group at that very critical time.”

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