By Nicole Dhanraj, Ph.D, SHRM-SCP, PMP, CRA, R.T (R)(CT)(MR)
Employees from every industry were significantly overwhelmed and panicked as a result of the recent COVID-19 crisis. Leaders within many imaging departments tweeted, posted, and called for help in trying to ensure their employees’ well-being. Their employees were under significant strain, some lashing out, others unable to work due to stress and familial obligations. Some leaders even lamented they felt their ethics and values were compromised because of the situation their employees had to work in and thought it very difficult to maintain employee motivation and calmness in the chaos that laid before them.
So, what should be done to keep an employee’s mental health in a crisis? Though there is no one size fits all approach, there is a common element to getting through any crisis, you, as the leader and your actions. Yes, though there are specific strategies to improve employees’ mental health, the catalyst for preventing mental health decline in a crisis and building resilience, is you and your actions as a leader.
In the health care industry, we have been through many crises. The risk for a crisis in our organization may be low, but we still develop emergency preparedness plans, which are revised as society suffers different challenges. As diseases surfaced, Ebola, SARS, Anthrax, Zika, we were briefed on how to manage should it happen to our organization, and those already experiencing outbreaks, hurriedly put measures in place to combat the negative consequences.
Crises don’t stop at these diseases though, in imaging, we have faced significant cuts in reimbursement, supply availability, recalls, poor patient outcomes, a code, bad publicity, a disgruntled customer, multiple trauma, employee walkout, and sentinel events to name a few of the things that have threatened employee longevity and organizational viability in some way. Some of these crises we don’t get a chance to prepare for, but for black swan events like COVID-19, we have had to adjust our sails on the fly and shift our operations hurriedly and in some cases suboptimally.
All these events have a significant impact on our employees’ well-being and ability to perform during a crisis. Here are a few thoughts for imaging leaders to consider to better support employees.
1. Past crisis. We have experienced crisis before, some we saw coming slowly, others crept up unannounced, and some blazed their way into our organizations wreaking havoc. What we know based on these experiences, is that there is a bell-shaped response. Chaos rises, and then it falls. The pace at which this grows is based on how well you lead as a leader. Recognizing the knowns in a crisis and being able to hold your leadership steady will decrease the intensity or speed at which the crisis hits your team and department. Thus, as a leader, leading by example and maintaining grit and confidence will instill less fear and doubt in employees. Leaders who remind employees through sharing of stories about times the organization made it through difficult situations will induce optimism and hopefulness.
2. A crisis reveals what’s inside. People will often blame others for what’s happening. As such, you have to be prepared that your employees will throw blame at you, spew, withdraw, and think the worse of you as a leader. You should not take this personally, this is a natural reaction to fear, and uncertainty. When their world becomes disrupted, people blame others. So, if you find your staff blaming you, remember, it’s a natural process. Acknowledge their fears and allow a safe space for expression. This may be all an employee needs to move forward.
3. No need to fix it. Leaders do not have to have all the answers and therefore fix everything. Some people are born to lead in a crisis, but others learn, usually by experience. As a leader, though your employees may seem like they think you may have all the answers, they know you are human, and as such not perfect and will make mistakes or be short of an answer occasionally. A display of vulnerability supports an authentic relationship with them. Don’t be afraid to share your concerns but do so with judgment. Don’t feed your fears, acknowledge your feelings before they overtake your behavior. Sharing your concerns can bring your team together, tightening their relationships. Together as a team, you can brainstorm possible answers to how some of the critical questions; how do we staff, how do we sustain our PPE, what is the next step we should take in this crisis, or what is my future at this organization? Remember, the collective thoughts of a group are much more useful than one perspective. Including your team and hearing from that what would work for them, versus you enforcing plans without input would foster confidence and a sense of ownership, and not to mention, the understanding, this too shall pass. Your words become your team’s reality. In a crisis, you are already somewhat worse off, so shift the mindset to think about what is the best outcome in the given situation?
4. Focus on the purpose. When employees rant, or are negative, it is usually because they have lost their sense of purpose and priorities as far as the organizational mission. Some employees will do anything to ensure their patient is treated, while others will express concern of being exposed to disease. It’s important to regain their focus when the chaos of the crisis distracts them. Acknowledge their concerns first. No employee should be forced to work because you or your policy said so. Policies are guidelines and usually set in place with known knowns. As you saw with COVID-19, no policy existed in any organization that could have guided what to do with this pandemic. If an employee doesn’t feel safe working, have a conversation, explain the purpose and mission, and invite them for their vision of how the team should approach caring for the patients. If an employee isn’t able to be a productive member of the team, then seek help from your senior leadership or human resource to understand the options the employees have. Under no circumstances should an employee be disciplined due to their concerns or fear of their safety. Your priority is indeed the patient, but also with the same importance, your employees’ well-being.
5. Growth through trauma. As a leader, your priority in any crisis, it to help people move from the crisis to out of the crisis more resilient and more robust. Post-trauma growth is a real concept. Think of situations where you emerged stronger as a result of some type of trauma. Similarly, you can help support growth in your employees, their mindset, and behavior based on how you communicate hope and grit to them.
6. Agile and adaptable. Imaging leaders in the 21st century have to be flexible in their operations. Having backup plans may work in some situations, but when all your contingency plans are exhausted, as in no more PPE, no per diem or agency workers, no ventilators, then what do you do? You have to be agile to lead your team through chaos and uncertainty. Leveraging your team’s collective strengths can help you design and develop innovative solutions together. Look for what is working and have your teamwork work to amplify these areas. A collaborative focus on what’s working will instill confidence and optimism in your team.
7. Communicate, but don’t overdo it. Employees spread rumors when there is not enough communication. Employees want to be told what is happening. Do not avoid the negative nellies. On-going communication is essential even when operations are declining. Acknowledging the challenges and letting them know that the team, and the organization will see better days ahead which can open their mental capacity. Focus on communication about what is happening now. You do not know what is going to happen later; events are dynamic, so communicate messages focused on the now.
8. Don’t expect clarity from your senior leadership at all times. In times of crisis, things are changing fast; there may be a level of ambiguity. Seek clarification as needed, do not take anything personal or think that information is being withheld. Do not feed into negativity about the organization with your employees. Remember, some leaders are born to lead in a crisis, while others may only have the theory of what to do, but never faced with the reality of how to drive in an actual crisis and in real-time, maybe paralyzed of what to do. Some employees may see this as bad leadership, and it may significantly affect their performance or faith in the organization. Still, if ever faced with that situation, maybe an informal leader may emerge from the team who can offer support. If not, you should reach out for help without the fear of shame or incompetence.
9. You can support your team no matter the situation. Team members may have been furloughed, released, or working from home. Maintain humanness in your connections, even if you are stressed and suffering from the same fate. Do not offer false hopes; some may not return to work. However, do not blame yourself or the organization but reassure your employees that you and your senior leadership will do the best they can for everyone.
10. Patience. Acknowledge that you may not be able to maintain the mental health of all your staff. Leaders are typically conditioned that it is their responsibility to make things right for their employees, make sure they are happy, and less stressed promptly. However, no matter how good a leader you are, you do not have that extent of control over another’s behavior. You do not need to blame yourself or feel stressed that your employee isn’t feeling happier. Think of your training for someone who is choking. If they are flailing, you cannot help them, as they may knock you unconscious. So, you have to wait till they are unconscious before you perform belly thrusts to get the object out, or resort to CPR. In challenging times, you will need to maintain your grounded state to support your employees. Do not let others pull you under. You are an influencer, but you do not control others.