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Column | Coronavirus

What employees need from their leaders during the coronavirus crisis

Column | Coronavirus

What employees need from their leaders during the coronavirus crisis

  • The coronavirus is disrupting operations for organizations throughout the country, especially in healthcare, making effective leadership even more crucial.
  • Leaders should be truthful, transparent and empathetic while managing the crisis.
  • Healthcare leaders should make frontline clinical workers feel like human beings, not merely part of a head count, by offering any accommodations they need.

Everyone can see the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on life as we know it. Even for those who may be in a lower health-risk category and don’t face the possibility of short-term economic dislocation, ongoing events can cause significant disruption and, in turn, stress.

In the workplace, team members are looking to their leaders for guidance and reassurance as they adjust to a new reality. This type of direction is essential even for businesses where the only change is that employees are required to work from home for an indefinite period. It’s all the more important for healthcare organizations.

With clinicians risking their well-being on the front lines of the fight against the outbreak and administrative personnel scrambling to support them, hospitals need calm, measured and decisive leadership now more than ever.

In critical times, people want their leaders to be:

  • Realistic yet optimistic
  • Completely truthful
  • Empathetic
  • Transparent in decision-making

Communicating during a crisis

Leaders should use the following approaches when communicating with staff:

  • Ask not only “What are you doing?” but also “How are you doing?”
  • Listen closely to the responses you get:
    • Watch people’s body language.
    • Look for changes in patterns.
    • Don’t assume silence means things are OK. Keep checking on people.
    • Be alert for rumors you can dispel and myths you can bust.
    • Be encouraging and appreciative. No matter how tired you are, you’re not the story; they are.
  • Keep in mind that when people are under stress, they don’t always process information well. Never assume that one memo or conversation is enough. If the message is important, repeat it often.
  • Recognize that in times of uncertainty, the last thing we want to do is spring needless surprises on people. A steady stream of clear and concise information is key.

One more thing: People of Asian ancestry have become the targets of ignorance and racism during this pandemic. Be alert to the possibility that it could happen to your team members, whether inside or outside the clinical setting. Be a source of support and strength. Tell staff you are aware that pandemics bring out the best in people, but recent reports document some of the worst behaviors, too.

Advise them to report any offensive behavior in the workplace to you, or any concerns they may have, because you stand ready to support them.

Unique challenges facing healthcare organizations

Medical professionals are known for their selflessness, but we can never take that for granted or assume that in the face of COVID-19, “You knew what to expect when you signed on for this kind of work.”

These are extraordinary times. We can’t ask people to check their families and fears at the workplace door. Just as we have protocols for safety and security, we should have protocols for opting out in the face of special circumstances.

It’s up to you to decide what those situations should be and how to reassign staffers or allow them to take time off. Just know that now, of all times, your employees need to believe they’re seen as human beings, not just as part of a head count.

Looking beyond the pandemic

Let’s hope our weary teams will get some respite before the next phase of this roller-coaster ride. They deserve it.

At the same time, people are aware that an economic free-fall may be unfolding. They want straight talk about their industry’s exposure. It’s widely known that leaders must plan scenarios for an array of developments. But such preparation is about possibilities, not certainties.

Don’t make predictions so dire that your best people quit, but don’t make promises you can’t deliver on.  Provide data about your organization’s place in the current and future state of the economy.

Again, meet people at the intersection of realism and optimism. That’s called hope. We all need it.

4 tips to establish an effective crisis response team

Good organizations have crisis response teams, often at both the corporate and local levels. To be effective, these teams should:

Have clear roles and responsibilities. If everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. All team members should know what’s expected of them as well as the span of their authority. Avoid putting lone wolves, brilliant jerks or turf protectors on a crisis response team. (It may be worth questioning why they’re around in the first place.)

Feel comfortable challenging the status quo. Response teams should be empowered to question processes that normally work just fine but become impediments when agility and service are key. It’s not about criticism; it’s about creative problem-solving.

Here’s a personal example: I volunteered to lead a webinar for my media colleagues on how they should care for journalists and journalism during the coronavirus outbreak. The platform my organization uses hosts 100 participants. I started out assuming that limit was a “given” but then realized that if I didn’t question it, we might leave people out. Yes, it would cost more, but my fact-based inquiry triggered a quick investment in expanded capacity. If I hadn’t questioned the system or had been afraid to bring it up to the powers-that-be, we wouldn’t have been able to serve the several hundred who registered.

Represent all stakeholders. Your team doesn’t have to have a member from every job description, but the team should be sensitive to the needs of colleagues at all levels and in every department. It’s often the people with the least influence who get left out — and they’re often the people we need the most. Every member of the crisis team should have a portfolio of stakeholders whom they listen to and represent.

Use a team compact to establish expectations. Have a working agreement that details:

  • Meeting attendance
  • Response time
  • Communication channels
  • Information sharing
  • Collaboration
  • Dispute resolution

When you’re working in the eye of the storm, such agreements can help you function with greater efficiency and less stress.


About the Author

Jill Geisler

is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, and a Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. Follow Jill on Twitter @JillGeisler.


Do you have questions or topics you’d like Jill to address in a future article? Email Nick Hut, HFMA senior editor, at nhut@hfma.org.


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