As the coronavirus pandemic reaches new heights across the country and hospitalizations rise, nurses are facing extreme and unprecedented demands. A recent study from the Journal of Occupational Health found that the coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted the mental health of health care workers, especially frontline staff.

The heightened risk of exposure, coupled with inexperienced nurses providing care in fields where they have limited experience and veteran nurses feeling severe burnout, has caused many nurses to quit and move to outpatient clinics or home care.

As a result, hospital systems are turning to short-term travel nurses to fill the gaps in care as they continue to rely heavily on their nursing staff to manage the increase in hospitalizations due to COVID-19. These temporary nurses often struggle to feel connected to the resident nurses which can result in miscommunication and lapses in effective patient care.

These rapidly changing circumstances have put hospital systems in a tough place. Many are focusing all their energy on dealing with the crisis at hand, rather than addressing the deteriorating mental and emotional health of their nursing staff.

To protect one of their most valuable resources–their nursing staff–it’s crucial for hospital systems to think proactively about building resilience among their nursing teams and leaders. In my work with Innovative Connections, we we’ve been able to help nursing leaders at Baptist Health in Montgomery, Alabama, do just that.

In May 2020, it was clear to Gretchen Estill, MSN, RN, CNML, Chief Nursing Officer at Baptist Medical Center East (BMCE), that her nursing leadership team was emotionally exhausted from the nonstop care needed to handle COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“We had a multifaceted challenge,” Estill said. “This strong group of leaders were beginning to run on empty as we realized that this was not a transient pandemic. We are a very relational group, and we were missing the ability to get together in person and debrief.”

Meanwhile, at Prattville Baptist Hospital (PBH), chief nursing officer Meg Spires, RN, MSN, recognized a similar pattern of fatigue and frustration among her team of clinical leaders. Her close-knit leadership team still felt a strong commitment to their mission of putting patients first, providing passionate care, and pursuing perfection. However, the challenges from the pandemic made this mission seem impossible to carry out.

Although investing time in team development and resilience work during a pandemic may have seemed counterintuitive, these nursing executives at Baptist Health understood their teams needed emotional and psychological support to make it through the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.

Nursing teams participated in weekly team coaching sessions facilitated by Innovative Connections, a management firm in Fort Collins, Colorado, via videoconference. Nurses were able to discuss mindfulness, dealing with grief, changing their perspectives and building resiliency.

At the end of each training we give them a mindfulness practice to help ground them during their work. We had nurses dedicate the 20 seconds they wash their hands multiple times each day to practice mindfulness. Instead of adding one more thing to their non-stop schedules, we were able to incorporate this self-care practice into something they already have to do throughout the day.

“This resilience training is a necessary investment before and especially during a crisis,” Laurie Cure, CEO of Innovative Connections said. “If a team has been working to build trust, they are better positioned to show up and do their job when a crisis hits.”

Initial feedback found that the nursing team was grateful to have an opportunity to connect as a group in a designated place to debrief about how they were doing mentally and emotionally with their teammates. Many enjoyed the chance to unplug and understand how others on their team were coping to focus on their collective contributions and strengths during such a stressful time.

“I’ve heard repeatedly from my leaders that they’re extremely appreciative that we, as an organization, cared enough about them and their emotional health to invest in them,” Spires said.

Dedicating the time for resilience and team building during the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic may have seemed counterintuitive at first. However, the awareness that these key team members gained from having protected time to rejuvenate and support one another was invaluable. Pursuing this intervention has contributed to increased efficiency and connectivity for these nursing teams.

“The team had to acknowledge that we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others,” Spires said. “We focus on our physical health, but we don’t pay as much attention to our emotional or mental health. We can’t do justice to our patients or our team members if we’re not emotionally healthy.”

Holly LeMaster
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