Emotional Validation and Healthcare Staff Support in the midst of COVID-19

5 Tips for Supporting Your Teams

Melissa R. Thornburg, MA
Senior Performance Improvement Coach, pCare

This past week as I watched USNS Comfort pass the Statue of Liberty to provide relief to New York hospitals, I was overcome with emotion and my eyes teared up. Reflecting back, I recognize those emotions as feelings of grief, anxiety, sadness, stress, hope and gratitude. What a list! And that’s coming from a Psychologist in Ohio working remotely; doing my part to support the healthcare community while practicing social distancing.

If those are the emotions I experience as a person working from home, imagine how our frontline staff feel as they face COVID-19 head on? As healthcare leaders, we have a renewed responsibility to support these frontline heroes, not only with PPE for their physical bodies, but also with “protection” and comfort for their psychological well-being.

Drawing from my role as the Director of Patient Experience in a large hospital system, I’ve come up with some tips on how to provide a few precious moments of relief for staff during this incredibly stressful and chaotic time:

  1. Breaks: I know…it seems impossible! However, as leaders, enforcing 10-15 minutes of downtime during stressful shifts can help “re-set” and refresh emotional well-being.
  2. A Resting Place: In times like this, I can hardly imagine anyone getting any rest, but if possible, transform an empty patient room, a break room, an unused conference room…any room…into a resting place. Block out the light, set up a reclining chair (maybe from an OB room?) that reclines, have soft-lit lamps or even twinkle lights, and allow people to rest for a quick moment in time. If you have the opportunity to have more than one chair, set up a few of them up for more staff to use.
  3. Aromatherapy Tabs: Instead of using a diffuser, offer aromatherapy tabs – small circular stickers that can absorb a drop of whatever essential oil the staff chooses, and can be placed on their scrubs. This allows for them to enjoy the scent personally but will not affect others.
  4. Snacks: We know these heroes need to refuel and sometimes don’t have the opportunity to do that. Having individually wrapped/packaged snacks with coffee, tea, and water is a nice way to say thank you and provide nourishment.
  5. Code Lavender: This tool or event was pioneered by the Cleveland Clinic and has been replicated by many health systems. In “normal times”, a staff member can call a Code Lavender when they are overcome by stress from any type of event during their work (i.e. Sentinel Events, death of a patient, traumatic multi-victim car accident, etc.). This “call” triggers a response team that offers emotional support and debriefing. During this unprecedented time, instead of having staff “call” a Code Lavender,  consider proactively  deploying a Code Lavender team to check-in with staff as they navigate the COVID-19 crisis. There are several resources and descriptions available for Code Lavender that is designed to prevent PTSD in healthcare staff. For more information on Code Lavender click here.

What if your organization does not have the time or resources to pull off any of the above suggestions? Then talking to staff, encouraging them, giving them praise and recognition for a job well done, along with creating opportunities to grieve, cry, and get angry is all helpful and healthy. Validating their emotions as real and normal is so important, as is allowing them to express those emotions without judgment.

Lastly, through it all, please share with staff that there are millions of people in this country that stand behind them, are appreciative of their efforts, are in awe of their courage, bravery and compassion, and are incredibly grateful for their sacrifices. That may not be top of mind for them when they are worried about bringing the virus home to their families, getting sick themselves and not be able to provide for their families, or watching a loved one suffer through it. That’s okay. I can’t even imagine that type of stress, and they are living it daily. Hopefully something on this list can bring them some comfort!

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