This is the fourth post of a four-part series on applying military lessons to the healthcare workforce.
In the best of times, working in healthcare can be stressful. Lives are, quite literally, on the line. Add a global pandemic on top of the already high-stakes nature of the job, and the pressures can become catastrophic—and as we’ve witnessed, it’s driving record burnout and turnover across the industry.
I see a lot of similarities between healthcare employees on the front lines and soldiers in battle. Soldiers operate under very tense conditions too. And it’s critical for soldiers to release stress from time to time. People are often surprised how much laughter there is in a combat unit. Soldiers use humor and fun to strengthen their teams—an important lesson for anyone in the healthcare field.
Fun refuels the tank
Being able to decompress and have fun is not only important for morale, but it’s critical to a safe environment. In the military, people throughout all ranks relieve stress with special meals, holiday celebrations, and United Service Organizations (USO) shows, which bring top talent to the troops deployed overseas. TVs, books, and video games are everywhere, so soldiers can relax during downtime. Soldiers really know how to let loose, when given the chance—but that’s a story for another time.
Today, I travel the country and help hospitals become safer. In my observations, one thing is missing. Fun. When COVID-19 took over our hospitals, many of the activities that bring levity and joy to the workforce were put on hold. Holiday celebrations, cookie deliveries, pizza parties—all gone. Everyone hunkered down together to defeat the virus—and hospitals have been slow to bring back the fun.
But it’s high time for fun to become part of each employee’s workday. Many senior leaders misjudge just how meaningful small things are to their teams. Think about your employees’ well-being like a fuel tank. We have been running that engine flat out for two years, with few opportunities to refuel. And that is what fun does: It fills the tank.
Press Ganey’s 2022 database shows all-time low scores for both employee and physician engagement, which began dipping steadily with the onset of the pandemic. In particular, the Decompression and Resources/Teamwork categories saw steep declines. But there’s a growing awareness of this problem and the need to address it. Several clients of mine have really dug into the “return of fun” over the winter.
I watched one hospital make a huge transformation in just a few months. When I visited in November 2021, they were at the lowest they have ever been. Their Press Ganey employee surveys showed morale and engagement had plummeted. People were incredibly vulnerable. Leaders were brought to tears in nearly every one-on-one session I had. But over the holidays, they invested a lot of effort into bringing back the fun. They scheduled regular opportunities for employees to have fun together at work—with costumes, crafts, puzzles and games, dinners, and special treats. When I returned in January, the hospital was a completely different place. The tone was noticeably lighter. Leaders were smiling and laughing in my meetings again. These seemingly frivolous activities drove a huge cultural shift that led to less stress, fewer leaves of absences, and fewer travelers, among many other positive changes.
It wasn’t like the work had let up. If anything, Omicron raised tensions again and flooded the hospital with new COVID cases. But the people were better able to deal with it.
Stand with pride
Nothing brings people together like adversity. No one will be closer to you than the people you went to combat with. These are the bonds that create military esprit de corps—the honor, community, and loyalty inherent to a highly functional team. There’s pride within teams, each of which has its own history, personality, and shared experiences. It’s important to celebrate a team’s collective identity and accomplishments.
This group pride also translates to the individual level. The military uses badges and awards to help tell the story of its service members. You can look at a soldier’s dress uniform and see what they do, what their skills are, where they’ve been, and how long they've seen combat. All of this reinforces the feeling that each is an important contributor to the unit’s success, not just a cog in a machine.
Healthcare professionals who have been on the front lines of COVID-19 have seen as much trauma and chaos as the most grizzled combat veteran. I stand in awe of you and everything you have accomplished. It has been one thing after another after another. And it’s never ending. On top of the epic battle against an invisible enemy, you’ve had to contend with short staffing, a temporary workforce, multiple and ever-changing mandates, protests, violence, forest fires, floods, power outages, and on and on. But you hung in there. You held the line with all odds stacked against you. You are heroes, and everyone at Press Ganey salutes you.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to see what you’re accomplishing while you’re still so close to the action. It’s up to leaders to remind the people on their teams about their successes. We need to rekindle their pride.
Together, we can overcome anything the world throws at us, accomplish any mission, and defeat any enemy. The military has demonstrated this again and again. Let’s learn from their example as we recover from COVID-19 and prepare for whatever comes next. I am proud to stand by your side as we hold the line together. And I will see you out on the battlefield! For more information on high reliability organizing and leader coaching and support, reach out here.