Listen and Lead with Compassion: Strategies to Re-engage Your Workforce

NOTE: The article below, authored by Wheeler's Jessica Arnold, LMFT, director of Behavioral Health, recently ran in the Healthcare Business Review. 

“I have an open-door policy and remain accessible to my team for as much of the day as I can. I reach out to staff individually, often letting them know when we get great feedback from clients.”

As leaders of large organizations, we have many daily responsibilities. We have budgets to balance, emails that need answering, and phone calls to be returned. But what is so often missed are the responsibilities right in front of us. People who need support and care from us. Our teams. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored this reality.

The COVID Crisis: A Prompt for Change

The COVID-19 health crisis changed the way everyone thought about work and was particularly challenging for workers in the healthcare sector. Over the past year and a half of working remotely, people have verbalized feelings of fear, burnout, and dissatisfaction with their jobs. Many employees worked all hours of the day and into the night because there was no separation between work and home. Staff felt tired and frustrated that the pandemic was happening, but they were still expected to “continue on.” Professionals in the mental health field were looked to for support while simultaneously experiencing the same traumas as their clients: losing loved ones to COVID-19, struggling with their mental health, lacking social support, and many feeling isolated from the world. During this difficult period, our team learned some valuable lessons, which have been thoughtfully internalized and put into practice at our community health centers. 

Lead with Compassion

The cost of burnout among physicians is estimated at $4.6 billion annually. Approximately 50 percent of behavioral health professionals report feeling burned out, and studies show the rate of burnout among mental health professionals is substantial, ranging from 21 to 67 percent. Preventing or stemming this problem is essential to attracting and retaining high-quality employees and ensuring continued access to top-notch care. Among the strategies to support retention is to lead with compassion. What does this mean? It means giving your team the same amount of care as your patients. It means caring deeply about your employees as if they were a part of your family and recognizing that employees have full lives outside of work with people they care about and who care about them. It means hearing their concerns, advocating for staff, and helping make necessary changes so they can come back from burnout. This kind of support helps employees heal, feel appreciated, and enjoy the work they do again. What should you do? Do what feels right. Listen to your instincts (and your team!) Are they burned out? Provide self-care activities such as yoga, meditation, or chair massages that are built into their day or around their lunchtime. Does your team feel isolated from each other? Celebrate the small wins, the big life moments, and the holidays when you can. Do you feel disconnected from staff members? Have an open-door policy or advertise office hours and encourage staff to reach out for direct connection and attention from you. Create a committee at your organization that specializes in celebrations, work anniversaries, or just spreading sunshine on dark days. Find like-minded people who want to lift others as well and support them in doing so. Give them the means and resources to spread positivity. Let your team know and feel that you care about them by hearing their concerns and following them up.

Your Words and Actions are Your Bonds

Not only do your words mean something to your team, but your actions are being observed all the time. Planning events is important, but being an active part of these events is even more necessary. Attending functions, engaging with your team members, scooping the ice cream, hanging the Halloween decorations, and spreading out the sweet treats individually—every action, seemingly small, makes a difference.

Measure Your Impact

It has been two years since our staff returned to work on-site. Since then, I have worked hard to implement the “lead with compassion” approach. Initially, my focus was to build trust. I wanted the team to know that I was a leader who would advocate for them while also bringing about change and supporting new workflows since the pandemic changed many of us operationally. We started a sunshine committee, and many creative events and activities flowed from there. I have an open-door policy and remain accessible to my team for as much of the day as I can. I reach out to staff individually, often letting them know when we get great feedback from clients. Our staff reports feeling happier in their positions, seven out of nine of our behavioral health interns over the past two years have been hired within our agency, and our Sunshine Committee continues to grow.

Going Forward

If you are just starting or have been in a leadership position for many years, it’s never too late to lead with compassion and make meaningful change. Start small and don’t overwhelm yourself. Send out a quick survey to your team to gauge their needs. Every team is different and has its own personality! Start by listening to and hearing from your staff about what they need to not only survive but thrive in their environment. Find other like-minded people to help lead your initiatives so you aren’t alone, and build the capacity of natural leaders on your team by asking them to play a role. Implement activities during lunchtime, take one staff meeting a month and plan something fun, or implement that sunshine committee you’ve always wanted to see happen.

As leaders, we’re required to manage many priorities. But our top priorities are the members of our teams. We must listen and show that we care. We must lead with compassion. We must follow through and participate. And, we must have faith that true change will happen, which often starts with one small step in the intended direction.

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