Just two months into his brand new position as the CEO of Hospice in Charleston, West Virginia, Chris Rawling’s high expectations and plans took a swift turn, and he found himself in pandemic survival mode. His organization includes around 700 employees, including a few hundred doctors, all under his brand new leadership in their most trying time in their careers. Rawlings discusses the devastating impact on his workplace community, and how he quickly shifted leadership strategies to accommodate the pandemic.
“[It’s] impacted healthcare professionals disproportionately, especially around areas of day to day work. If you are in banking, or accounting, you can work from home whereas if you are a health care provider, you have to be in front of that patient, ‘on stage,’” he explained. He discusses leading a group that not only risks exposing themselves “up close and personal with other humans” but also the intense pressure of each of them “rewriting their personal lives” to be able to continue to work as the world shut down. From babysitting or homeschooling concerns, or the stressors of bringing home COVID-19 to childcare providers, the health care workers continued on in spite of the challenges. Rawlings adjusted his strategies to prevent workplace burnout in one of the most trying times in history for health care workers. Here’s how he did it.
#1 ENCOURAGING TRANSPARENCY ABOUT INTENSE GRIEF
He started by “not ignoring the fact that we feel anxiety, burnout, and depression.” He encouraged open and honest dialogue, normalizing intense and difficult feelings, and supporting each other. But this didn’t mean encouraging a toxic positivity in his workplace. Instead, it meant validating that “we shouldn’t be feeling happy every day…uncertainty is normal right now.”
He sought to be transparent about his own grief, and that of those he worked with. “A lot of what we are feeling mimics the feelings of grief,” so in a field that knows and sees deep suffering and grief daily, his staff used what they already know. “We’ve lost financially, the ability to interact with friends, social setting interactions, lost traditions, etc.”
#2 CONVINCING HIS STAFF TO DISCONNECT
Rawlings knows well the potential negativity of watching the 24 hour news cycle, social media feeds, and “extreme left or right news programs or communications that may not have true scientific-based evidence around the disease.” So he encouraged his staff to unplug, disconnect, and turn off that news cycle as a form of self-care. Through email communication, he hoped that the reminders would help them be more self-aware about their consumption habits during a sensitive time.
#3 LOWERING HIS OWN EXPECTATIONS AND LOFTY GOALS
What does a new CEO have? Lots of goals. Visions. Missions. But the pandemic forced Rawlings to rethink them all. “There’s a lot I put on hold,” he said. “Burnout depends upon our own internal expectations and goals…a lot of us have high expectations of ourselves and the healthcare community because we are serving. When we don’t accomplish those goals they feel they should have worked harder or longer and have this sense of burnout or do work harder and longer and have burnout as well.” He personally took a step back and tried to determine what he needed to achieve right now, and what could wait. He realized that maybe it wasn’t the time to expand, but to survive and support his staff.
#4 REALIZING THAT EVERYONE HAS A “SHORTER FUSE”
Doctors in his company and around the country felt some serious angst when policies were changing quickly, from COVID protocols to visitor or patient transfer policies. Processes that normally take years to change were suddenly happening in a matter of days. “For healthcare this is not common…it’s usually evidence-based, slow, methodical, hypotheses tested, etc. Potentially years,” Rawlings explained. In addition to rapid changes there was the conflict fatigue of dealing with the same major problems daily for six months. “We are still talking about the same things as six months ago in meetings. There’s a level of fatigue…”.
He quickly realized that his own self-awareness of his own fuse and patience level, as well as others, had to adjust. “You have to be more resilient and self-aware as a leader.”
#5 NARROWING THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE BOARD ROOM AND THE PATIENT ROOM
COVID-19 brought a deep divide to the forefront of everyone’s attention–the discrepancy between high-up leaders making decisions, and those who are expected to execute them.
“There’s a huge disconnect between people sitting in board rooms (decision makers) and the front line workers…most of the people don’t have elementary age kids anymore and if they do they are making enough money that their spouse is staying at home and don’t have to consider school, babysitting, etc.”. He said a simple change needs to be made: the voice of frontline employees need to be considered in the board room as decisions are made.
“At the end of the day the pandemic is temporary…we need to do anything we can to give them the flexibility they need during this time (such as adjusting schedules). Let’s do our best to challenge ourselves to make that happen. It’s the biggest thing that the boardroom doesn’t see.” He’s encouraging and challenging anyone in decision-making roles to acknowledge the disproportionate struggle healthcare workers are facing.
Written by Jessica Walther, CEO of Itivate