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How Healthcare Leaders Continue to Care for Caregivers

A powerful lesson for leaders across sectors and industries.

Key points

  • Healthcare professionals have been dealing with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic longer than other professionals.
  • Reports around the globe confirm that they are now reporting higher than average rates of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and burnout.
  • Leaders across industries and sectors can learn from healthcare leaders' response.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we are all stressed and stretched. We are all feeling uncertain about the path ahead. No one knows this better than healthcare professionals.

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, healthcare workers were the first professionals to feel the impact. For this reason, it is not a surprise that this group is now suffering from some of the highest rates of occupational burnout.

This post offers a summary of what we know about the pandemic's impact on healthcare professionals. It also explores some of the things healthcare leaders continue to do to mitigate the effects of prolonged stress and uncertainty on their team members.

Reported Impacts of the Pandemic on the Wellbeing of Healthcare Professionals

Hundreds of articles have been published documenting the pandemic's impact on the mental health of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Regardless of the region in which the study was carried out, the findings consistently reach a similar conclusion: the pandemic has put healthcare workers at higher risk of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

  • Insomnia: A May 2021 study found widespread sleep disturbances among healthcare workers. The survey of nearly 1,000 healthcare professionals found that 96% reported poor sleep, and one-third reported moderate to severe insomnia. This U.S. study was consistent with the findings of an earlier spring 2020 study from China that reported that one-third of medical staff working during the pandemic were suffering from insomnia. Given the known physical side effects of prolonged insomnia, including greater risks of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and weight-related issues, high insomnia rates among healthcare workers remain a deep concern.
  • Anxiety: Not surprisingly, anxiety levels among healthcare workers have also increased during the pandemic. However, due to the contagious nature of COVID-19, anxiety levels have increased not only in the workplace but also at home.
  • Depression: Studies carried out around the globe in countries as diverse as Kenya, China, Egypt, and Jordan have found that depression among healthcare workers has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic.
  • Burnout: As previously discussed in this blog, pandemic-related burnout is widespread. Levels of burnout among healthcare workers are especially high. A U.S.-based study carried out in 2020 found that 49 percent of healthcare workers surveyed indicated that they were suffering from burnout. A study of more than 2,000 Indian healthcare workers, also carried out in 2020, reached a similar conclusion, with roughly one-half of respondents indicating that they were suffering from burnout. In some nations, the reported burnout rate among healthcare workers in 2020 was even higher; one Saudi study found that 75 percent of healthcare workers were suffering from burnout during the pandemic.

How Healthcare Leaders Have Stepped Up to Support Team Members

Even before the pandemic, healthcare professionals reported higher than average levels of stress and anxiety on the job, as well as burnout. Pre-pandemic, studies also found that healthcare professionals were less likely than other professionals to seek help for mental health problems.

Thankfully, during the pandemic, healthcare leaders have been exceptionally proactive about supporting their team members. These are just a few things hospital leaders have done to support their employees since the pandemic arrived in early 2020:

  • Ongoing assessment: Since the start of the pandemic, the American Medical Association has offered two no-cost surveys to enable health care organizations to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on their employees. Many healthcare leaders have used the AMA's surveys or developed their own to help gather the insights needed to track their employees' wellbeing and proactively respond to emerging challenges.

  • Redistributing work: Some healthcare systems have adopted innovative ways to redistribute the workload (e.g., they have asked physicians working at home or quarantining due to exposure to manage the inboxes of physicians working on the frontlines).
  • Revising institutional policies: Many hospitals and healthcare systems have responded to the pandemic by adjusting policies, including those regarding compensated sick days.
  • Providing expanded benefits: Some hospitals and healthcare systems have partnered with local restaurants and food delivery services to provide access to meals, including takeaway meals that employees can bring home to feed their families at the end of the day. Healthcare leaders have also worked to provide other expanded benefits to make the lives of their workers easier. This has included everything from setting up around-the-clock childcare services to dog walking services to ensure their employees can fully focus on their work.
  • Investing in mental health services: Most importantly, healthcare leaders have invested in mental health services. From making psychologists available to employees in hospital courtyards and cafeterias to providing employees with subsidized access to a broader range of online mental health services, healthcare systems continue to find new ways to support their employees on the frontlines. For more examples, also see the American Medical Association's "Caring for Caregivers During COVID-19."

A Lesson for Leaders Across Sectors

Given that pandemic-related stress and uncertainty appear to be here to stay, now is the time for leaders across sectors to take a page from the playbook of healthcare leaders.

  1. Start by assessing your workforce. What practices, expectations, or policies are heightening their stress and anxiety?
  2. Take a long, hard look at your policies (e.g., on paid sick days and mental health days). Could introducing compensated mental health days help reduce burnout?
  3. Critically reflect on your workplace perks. If pre-pandemic you were providing your employees with access to an onsite barista or beer on tap, are these perks still the most needed or appropriate ones in which to invest? Again, ask your employees what they really need and reallocate your budget as required.
  4. Invest in mental health (MH) services. If MH hasn't previously been a budget line, you won't be the only leader deciding to invest in workplace MH now. As Synchrony Financial CEO Margaret Keene wrote in early 2021, "Offering benefits to employees such as wellness counselors or life coaches, teletherapy, remote or flexible work options, and innovative childcare support should become table stakes." The same ethos guided Nike's recent decision to give all the employees at their corporate headquarters in Portland a week-long paid break to focus on their mental health.

The pandemic has radically changed what it means to be a great leader. Whatever your sector or industry, I encourage you to look to healthcare leaders as an example. As the leaders who have been dealing with the pandemic's impact longest and arguably in its most intense form, they offer an inspiring template for how to support team members in the face of unprecedented adversity.


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