Does joy in work matter during a pandemic?

At a time when health care professionals across the globe are working around the clock against COVID-19, it may seem tone-deaf at best to think about joy in work.

We all agree that the top priority for health care leaders now is to focus on expanding testing and ensuring enough proper equipment and other resources for staff. In the health care world’s current hierarchy of needs, these are undoubtedly at the top.

Can we even talk about joy at this time?

We can and we should, because joy in work is about cultivating a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. It is about acknowledging that the effects of long hours, stress, frustration, fear, and unprecedented risk health care professionals are facing right now will likely last long after the crisis abates.

Burnout was a big problem in health care before COVID-19. It may take a while to fully understand and recover from what health care professionals are experiencing now.

Clinicians and staff are working like firefighters in continuously burning buildings, committed to saving others while facing grave dangers themselves. Boston Medical Center’s Lakshman Swamy, MD, said recently, “As an intensive care doctor, [caring for patients during this pandemic] feels like what we were born for. This is what I’ve spent years training for. . . . But the challenge is that, when we don’t feel safe, it’s terrifying.” Terrifying because nurses, physicians, allied health workers, environmental service workers, food service workers, techs, and others have understandable concerns about their own personal safety or lack thereof. Worries about elderly or immune-compromised family members or kids who are staying home from school or college. Leaders must help staff address these issues in ways we may never have before.

A first step in cultivating joy in work is to ask staff what matters most to them. This simple question is now more important than ever. And, while the top priorities for leaders should be to equip and protect staff and expand testing, I respectfully suggest the following actions:

Articulate constancy of purpose. In times of pressure and challenge, it can be easy to focus on the urgent issue in front of us and lose sight of our principles. People are struggling to sift through their daily tasks, new requirements, and changes in policy and operating environments. During this crisis, leaders need to spend time with the staff at the point of care, see the challenges they’re facing, remove barriers, recognize the value of their efforts, and keep everyone pointed in the direction of True North – providing the best care possible for their patients.

Enhance individual resilience and sense of meaning. Though we shouldn’t rely solely on individual resilience as the answer to our current challenges, we must do all we can to make sure people see that their work makes a difference in the lives of their patients and colleagues.

Maintain teamwork. Teams are being sorely tested as they get refocused, reallocated, and pulled in different directions. Managers need to find ways to maintain teamwork even as some teams are being fragmented as they adapt to the changing needs of their patients and organization.

Create and encourage psychological safety. A psychologically safe environment is one in which “anyone can ask questions without looking stupid. Anyone can ask for feedback without looking incompetent. Anyone can be respectfully critical without appearing negative. Anyone can suggest innovative ideas without being perceived as disruptive.”

Health care leaders are being tested as never before. At a time when it might be easier for them to focus on what they need in their own health systems, they are helping colleagues across the globe, across the country, and sometimes across town at “competing” organizations. The richness of this collaboration is staggering.

That’s a truly hopeful development, because we’re more likely to get the answers we need and to support the health care workforce in deeply meaningful ways, if we navigate our way through these troubled times together.

Derek Feeley is president and CEO, Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and can be reached on Twitter @DerekFeeleyIHI.

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