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Caring for caregivers: A leadership checklist

In these days of fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, ensuring the physical and emotional well-being of the healthcare workforce must be a leadership priority. Front-line caregivers and staff are facing stress that was unimaginable even a month ago. To help them bear the sustained burden and deliver the best care for patients, leaders must understand the potentially damaging impact these unique circumstances can have and consistently and deliberately work to mitigate it.

Caregivers’ physical safety is an area of intense focus, as it should be. Minimizing exposure risk, ensuring access to protective equipment, and protecting against exhaustion due to overwork are top concerns. But leaders must also focus on the emotional well-being of their workforce and themselves. This is a lesson we have learned over the past 20 years in patient safety. Healthcare providers who are involved in an unanticipated adverse event can be traumatized by the event. Across studies, clinicians involved in these events report feelings of responsibility for patient outcomes, shame, anger, failure, depression, inadequacy, and loss of confidence. Some report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the current crisis, emotional stress is incredibly high. The pandemic is spreading rapidly, and staff members are caring for high numbers of patients with potentially bad outcomes. Workload pressure; personal safety concerns; anxiety about the well-being of family, friends, and colleagues; childcare challenges; and financial concerns further exacerbate emotional stress.

The following checklist is a starting point to help leaders address these issues. We plan to build on it as we hear from colleagues around the country who have developed additional strategies for caring for their caregivers. 

Leadership strategies for workforce protection against physical and emotional harm 

Physical harm:

  • Develop robust protocols for triage, quarantining, and distancing to minimize exposure.
  • Minimize contact with patients by using telehealth when possible and cutting back on schedules.
  • Provide sufficient access to personal protective gear.
  • Ensure the availability of, and easy access to, hand hygiene products.
  • Communicate and enforce guidelines for reducing risk of transmission.
  • Communicate and enforce return-to-work guidelines for infected workers.

Emotional harm:

  • Communicate frequently and empathically to build trust.
  • Employ universal leadership skills, such as communication, awareness, honesty, and transparency.
  • Organize peer support groups.
  • Promote and support health and wellness practices around nutrition, sleep, exercise, and social connections.
  • Offer and suggest anxiety-reduction strategies and opportunities like mindfulness exercises and buddy systems.
  • Provide professional counseling and mental health services through employee assistance programs.
  • Establish and communicate clear policies around time off, sick time, and pay.
  • Design solutions for providing childcare coverage.
  • Develop and communicate clear guidelines to minimize family exposures.
  • Offer support for families of caregivers.

Because emotional consequences can often be invisible and enduring, leaders must also create strategies to monitor for intermediate and longer-term aftereffects of this crisis, such as PTSD and anxiety, and ensure support services are available to the entire workforce, including themselves. Thinking about emotional impact is a major challenge, especially while trying to ensure day-to-day operations are safe and high quality. This checklist can help leaders develop robust strategies as part of their preparedness planning.

To talk to an expert about these topics and more, reach out here.

Helpful references: 

About the author

As Chief Safety and Transformation Officer, Dr. Gandhi, MPH, CPPS is responsible for improving patient and workforce safety, and developing innovative healthcare transformation strategies. She leads the Zero Harm movement and helps healthcare organizations recognize inequity as a type of harm for both patients and the workforce. Dr. Gandhi also leads the Press Ganey Equity Partnership, a collaborative initiative dedicated to addressing healthcare disparities and the impact of racial inequities on patients and caregivers. Before joining Press Ganey, Dr. Gandhi served as Chief Clinical and Safety Officer at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), where she led IHI programs focused on improving patient and workforce safety.

Profile Photo of Dr. Tejal Gandhi, MPH, CPPS