For hospitals and the people who staff them, it was exactly the déjà vu they were hoping to avoid: another surge in COVID-19 cases, with the now all-too-familiar strains and stressors that accompany it.
The rapid spread of the Delta variant in the U.S. and elsewhere brought reports of fresh spikes in hospital admission numbers and shortages of ICU beds. Hospitals were forced to increase overtime demands on staff, recall contingent workers and in some cases, hastily establish temporary treatment facilities to accommodate patients. All of which pointed to a return to some of the working conditions that so heavily taxed employees during previous waves, when, according to a report published by the Lancet based on a national survey of healthcare workers, 64% reported a fear of exposure or transmission, 38% reported anxiety/depression, 43% suffered work overload and 49% reported burnout.
These findings underscore one of the big lessons to emerge from previous COVID-19 surges, suggesting that in treating an unprecedented pandemic-related workload, hospitals and healthcare providers must find ways to elevate the support they provide to their employees. Technology can play an important role in that effort, enabling organizations to keep employees engaged and help them work through the added stress and fatigue to continue to perform their jobs well under highly pressurized conditions. Here’s how:
Empowering employees to do their jobs better and more efficiently. One way organizations are countering increasing medical staff workloads is to ensure frontline teams have on-demand digital access to the network and the key tools, systems and data attached to it, such as by providing wards with more shared mobile devices to gain that access. As versatile as tablets and smartphones are, their ability to help medical staff in various aspects of their jobs could provide direct benefits to the hospital or healthcare facility, in terms of patient outcomes, employee satisfaction and return on investment.
Now more than ever, organizations need to support members of their medical staff in keeping current, not only with safety protocol but with professional training and continuing education. Whether delivered by the aforementioned mobile device or by laptop or desktop computer, consistently providing them with learning opportunities helps them to feel empowered, valued and prepared in their work. The ability to access training, etc., anytime, anyplace, on any device, is especially important nowadays.
Amid all the COVID-19 distractions lies an opportunity to help employees build their skillsets and advance their careers. With many ICUs now at or near capacity, there’s strong demand for additional ICU nurses. By providing staff members that aspire to work as ICU nurses with on-demand access to training resources, healthcare providers can quickly fill staffing shortfalls while also fulfilling employees’ career advancement goals. More broadly, offering these upwardly mobile training opportunities can help hospitals address a nursing talent squeeze that will worsen in the years ahead.
Elevating communications to keep employees informed and engaged. The heightened stress that working during a pandemic puts on staff demands that hospitals and healthcare facilities keep close tabs on employees’ mental as well as physical health and well-being.
Penn Medicine, a large healthcare system in the Philadelphia, Pa., area, has been doing just that by developing multiple, easy-to-access channels (daily email from leadership, a dedicated “Penn Medicine Together” website, weekly “Lunch With Leaders” virtual meetings, etc.) for clinical and non-clinical staff and leadership to maintain an open dialogue to share concerns, stay informed, exchange best practices, access resources and generally remain connected.
On the communications front, digital capabilities such as in-the-moment, self-service “pulse-check” survey tools can be invaluable in enabling employees to share thoughts not only on their own mental and physical health and stress level but also on working conditions, processes and equipment. An organization’s HR department can gather and apply analytics tools to this survey data to identify areas that need addressing and respond in a timely manner to drops offs in motivation and morale, for example, which in turn drives better outcomes for employees, patients, and the organization. These tools also enable leaders to quickly flag team members who may be wrestling with mental, emotional, or physical issues, then mobilize to provide support and resources to that person.
Managing workload to minimize stress and burnout. Organizations can and should find ways to counter the heightened fatigue and stress that go with working the medical frontlines during a pandemic. “When able and within applicable legal limits, rotate workers from higher-stress to lower-stress functions,” the American Medical Association recommends. “Partner inexperienced workers with more experienced colleagues, who can provide support, monitor stress and reinforce safety practices. Implement flexible schedules for workers who are directly impacted or have a family member impacted by the outbreak.” All this can be enabled with digital scheduling tools that managers can access on the fly.
In Germany, Heidelberg University Hospital has been using a new app to coordinate the distribution of patients in the region during t the pandemic. Armed with real-time data about bed occupancy, it can instantly route ambulances and patients to facilities with open ICU beds, rather than to overburdened ICUs.
Focusing on attracting and retaining staff. As prevalent as medical staff shortages have been throughout the pandemic, digital capabilities can give organizations an edge in recruiting and hanging onto top employees. Having streamlined application and interview processes that provide real-time updates to candidates and new hires is one way to gain an edge. Showing them a clear path to career advancement throughout the organization, based on their interests and aspirations, then helping them along that path, is another important differentiator. Digital tools can enable an organization to track the skills and career goals of individual employees, identify training and development gaps, then provide access to digitally delivered professional development and training to fill those gaps. This sends a powerful signal to employees that they are valued.
The more that healthcare organizations do to amplify and reinforce that message to keep their clinical and non-clinical staff engaged, informed and empowered, the better positioned they will be not only to answer the call under the immense strain of a pandemic but also to attract and retain top talent in the post-COVID-19 era.
About Anna Nerz
Anna Nerz is a healthcare solution manager at SAP, where she helps healthcare organizations leverage the full potential of technology tailored to their needs.