From the very first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the communal trauma we were going through was going to have a profound and lasting psychological toll on health care workers. A study Mount Sinai conducted in April 2020, when the pandemic first hit New York, found that 39 percent of frontline health care workers demonstrated symptoms of COVID-19-related post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety.
We further anticipated that there would be lessons learned and post-traumatic growth from this experience. We surveyed health care workers again in December 2020, when there were fewer severely ill patients with COVID-19 in our hospitals, although we were still very much in the grips of the pandemic. In that survey, we found that three out of four workers experienced moderate or greater post-traumatic growth. Of this group, two-thirds reported greater appreciation of life and improved relationships. This was not despite the pandemic stress but in many ways because of it. The survey found that higher levels of exposure to pandemic stress in fact correlated with post-traumatic growth.
We as a nation are at an inflection point. We are positioned—and, I believe, beckoned—to enhance the workplace in ways that enable workers to travel a course towards post-traumatic growth and away from post-traumatic stress. To get there, we must build, sustain, and reinforce a workplace that furthers their psychological safety in words and actions. That means creating a culture in which employees feel their voice is heard and respected, their value is recognized, and their needs are supported. This includes:
- Empowering workers to offer input and solutions, including those that optimize their workflows and workspaces. Demands for documentation, for example, are a persistent challenge to well-being in the workplace, especially for health care workers. Soliciting employees’ voices in improving the system gives them agency over their environment and can be beneficial to their well-being. One health system, Hawaii Pacific Health, launched a successful initiative, “Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff.” The campaign invited all employees to nominate any demands in Electronic Health Record documentation that were inefficient, repetitive, or, simply, stupid, and the leadership team implemented many of the suggestions.
- Embedding the objectives and strategies of psychological safety into leadership training and evaluation, as well as onboarding and everyday workplace decisions, encouraging the culture to flourish throughout the organization. This includes empowering team leaders at all levels to effectively recognize and appreciate good work throughout their teams, as well as training leaders to solicit and respect the voices of all on the team. The Mayo Clinic Leader Index can be used to measure leadership behaviors that foster workforce well-being.
- Encouraging workers to feel part of something larger than themselves. We continue to highlight the profound meaning of the work they accomplished during the greatest global health crisis we’ve ever experienced. That would mean they could look back on this experience as one of the most meaningful things they’ve done in their career, a time when they were urgently needed and were able to bring their skills to bear on something so vital.
We can learn from forward-thinking companies across industries—such as Toyota, Zappos, and Google—that have made it an organizational priority to design workplaces as psychologically safe spaces and inculcate that ethos into their institutional culture.
Creating a psychologically safe space can confer benefits in a number of areas central to an organization’s success. In health care, increased employee well-being can translate to an improvement in quality and safety. When employees are comfortable speaking up, their insights can help advance problem-solving innovations and decrease medical errors. Concurrently, when employees feel that their voice is heard and appreciated, that can further a sense of equity and inclusion, which are mission-critical workplace values.
The communal trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and its upheaval in workplaces across the globe and across industries have elevated the importance and urgency of building supportive organizational cultures that foster employee well-being, promote meaning in work, value employees’ ideas, and embrace their authentic selves. If we are successful at creating organization-wide cultures of support, they can serve as a bulwark for the workforce if and when the next crisis hits.
This post is the last of a three-part series that addresses workplace well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Part I examines the importance of elevating workplace well-being as a top organizational priority. Part II chronicles the psychological toll of the pandemic’s early days on the workforce, particularly health care workers, and the support they needed from their workplaces.