by Lori King, DNP, RN, APRN

Is the strain of COVID-19 on our healthcare teams bringing us closer together or driving us apart? Depending on what you read in the news, it’s hard to tell the impact on our society as a whole. There are stories of “we are in this together” and there are stories of protest. When looking within the walls of our hospitals, it is a whole different experience.

There are many studies demonstrating that in times of crisis, the human condition naturally pulls together. In healthcare, we are also keen to research showing the powerful impact of positive work cultures on patient outcomes.  It seems plausible that this could be the most opportune time to strengthen employer-employee relationships and position your teams to work through the issues we are facing together.

Experience and research both support that in stressful times like this COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the fundamental connection we all share - our common humanity. In war we see acts of heroism, selflessness, and hear stories of deep, long-lasting human connection. After 9/11, citizens of New York City and across the entire nation experienced a heightened sense of unity and renewed patriotism. There were also many stories of human connection after the devastation in 2012 of Hurricane Sandy.

With the tendency of the human condition to come together, how does this line up with some of the public criticism of hospitals and unreasonable demands by aggressive unions. These organizing activities are not helpful and only place additional stress on an already horrible situation. Yes, there are bad situations with employers that have occurred. Also, given the magnitude and emotion involved, it is likely that things are not always going to be handled correctly.

This is not the norm, nor is it a reflection of all healthcare employer environments. The norm looks more like that of Baystate Health, where executive leaders and front-line staff are working together like never before to overcome shared challenges; or like nurse leaders such as Vicky Byrd, MSN, RN Chief Executive Officer of Montana Nurses Association. Ms. Byrd states, “The lack of PPE is inexcusable. It is not that of the nurses or the facilities fault. It is a national and global issue and one of which we must all work through members of Congress and command them to do everything possible to prioritize PPE production and distribution to our healthcare systems.”

There are many stories of hospitals prioritizing communication, staffing, employee wellbeing, and collaboration in order to reduce the burden for those on their payroll - while managing the financial impact on the system. There are stories of healthcare professionals like cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Joel Dunning who are taking extraordinary steps to help their colleagues.

Recognizing and understanding our shared vulnerability during this time is the right approach. If a mistake is made in your facility, apologize and take steps to correct it. Ensure that you are communicating broadly the steps you are taking to care for your employee needs. Ask for employee input and ideas.

Seize the moment as you navigate this situation to share the positive steps your teams are taking. Share your stories of overcoming obstacles, inspiration, and connectedness to drown out the few who accentuate any issue they can find in order to give society the wrong impression of how we actually operate in the majority of hospital settings.

There is no doubt that we are learning many lessons about how things CAN and SHOULD be done better going forward in healthcare. We can address those together once we have - as successfully as possible - weathered this storm.