In March 2020, Nathan Harrup knew that the coming weeks and months would be stressful for his fellow health-care team members at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, United States.
“When the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic, we realized we could be facing an upcoming mental health crisis among health-care workers,” Harrup, regional director of Clinical Mission Integration at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, said. “There was a lot of fear of the unknown and what it would mean for patients.”
Harrup wanted to find a way to help team members handle the tough road ahead. He met with Behavioral Health leaders at the hospital to discuss ways to support the emotional well-being of team members throughout the organization.
Along with Rennie Shuler-McKinney, director of Behavioral Health, Harrup helped set up a Behavioral Health Task Force, including leaders from behavioral health, social work, spiritual wellness, and human resources. The group started in April 2020 and has continued to meet with department leaders throughout the year to assess the needs of the hospital community and find ways to give support.
“We knew this had taken an emotional toll on everyone,” Shuler-McKinney said. “Our health-care team is very resilient, but to see the amount of death throughout the nation was weighing heavily on everyone, particularly when we’re an organization that’s about healing and providing life-saving measures.”
The task force helped prioritize regular calls with team members to discuss topics related to mental and emotional well-being. The Well Being C.A.R.E. (Compassion, Acceptance, Respect, and Empathy) calls are led by Ravi Sabapathy, Shuler-McKinney, and ICU nurse director Kirsten Larson.
“The calls are to help us to stay connected and engaged, especially during this time of social distancing,” Sabapathy said. “We wanted to find time to be present with our team and acknowledge the struggles we’re facing.”
Team members throughout the hospital are invited to join the meetings. While the meetings started as in-person sessions, they later switched to a virtual format to allow more people to attend. Participants can decide whether they want to use video to participate or log in anonymously to listen. “We try to meet each team member where they’re at,” Shuler-McKinney said.
The virtual format can also to reach people who might not otherwise ask for help. “Sometimes, people may say they’re fine when they’re not fine,” Sabapathy added. “There’s an assumption that we’re supposed to handle everything, even in a pandemic. We want to make sure we’re providing many different opportunities for people to reach out.”
The calls often start with a general theme to discuss. Examples include the challenges of virtual school for kids, social distancing, and holiday plans. Often, the topics go in different directions depending on what people want to discuss.
“We want to establish an environment and culture where our strong team members feel validated and safe in sharing their understandable fears and frustrations,” Sabapathy said. “It might be something that they feel comfortable sharing in our group, or they might decide to talk about it on their own with someone they trust.”
In addition to the virtual meetings, the task force helped identify the need for team members to have free therapy sessions. The sessions are made possible with the support of the AdventHealth Foundation Shawnee Mission.
“I give a lot of credit to our administration and medical staff, because this couldn’t happen without the complete support from our leadership team,” Sabapathy said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have their aid in programs that provide confidential coaching, consulting, and counseling for our team members.”
The plan is for the therapy sessions and virtual calls to continue in the coming months as team members find ways to heal. Part of the task force’s goal is to reassess at a certain point and find ways to meet the needs of the hospital community. “We have to recognize that what we’ve been through is tragic and draining and find ways to rebuild,” Shuler-McKinney said.
That message not only applies to team members but to the community as a whole, Harrup said. “It’s important to acknowledge that we’ve been through an unprecedented time and give ourselves space to heal,” he said. “Be honest with yourself about your limitations. Find opportunities to talk about your stress with others, whether that’s a friend or therapist. And give yourself the same compassion that you would give a friend.”