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Caring for Healthcare Workers During a Global Health Pandemic

As many employers adapt during a global pandemic, there is one group that finds themselves looking at things a bit different than other employers. Healthcare systems are being hit hard; caring for those that are ill in masses, dealing with the stress of exposing themselves and their loved ones, working around the clock, struggling to find enough PPE, and being front row for the suffering and death that many of us are sheltered from. As such, strategies for employee wellness for these workers looks different as well. Gundersen Health System, a Platinum Well Workplace, shares with us how they are helping all levels of their staff during this difficult time in the latest WELCOA Expert Interview.


Gundersen Health System is a physician-led, not-for profit healthcare system located throughout western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota caring for patients in 21 counties. They have repeatedly been named among the top 50 hospitals in the nation and were designated as a Platinum Well Workplace in 2018. Gundersen Health System’s vision is to enhance the health and well-being of our communities, while enriching every life we touch, including patients, families, and staff.

Caring for Healthcare Workers During a Global Health Pandemic
An Expert Interview with Platinum Well Workplace, Gundersen Health System

Lori Thomas  Thank you so much for joining us today Sarah and Jessica! As a Platinum Well Workplace healthcare system, we are excited to hear more about how Gundersen Health System is navigating during this global pandemic. One question we have seen from healthcare system HR and health promotion professionals is “What are other healthcare systems doing to promote wellbeing to their healthcare providers and first responders during this crisis?” We would love to start out by hearing what you are doing at Gundersen Health System.

Sarah Havens  As we think of staff, there are the frontlines (those in direct patient care), staff engaged every day supporting the frontline staff, and staff working at home continuing to keep the business going and those staff with adjusted schedules and they all have different kinds of needs. Especially in areas where there is a high incidence of COVID-19 cases, we see the stress and anxiety of the frontlines, but behind them there is a whole other group of employees that we can’t forget about that are just as important.

A good majority of our staff had knowledge of the resources that were available for them already. For example, we have an employee workout area and that was the last fitness center in the area to close. It was only available to our employees, but they were using it even more than they ever had. They were employees that were in direct patient care and were able to get to that space and then back to their workspace. Of course, due to social distancing and infectious disease criteria, we couldn’t keep it open. But because of the awareness our staff already had, they continued to use some of those resources. Being a health center, there is food available because you have to have that sustenance, and we continue to remind individuals to make sure they are eating and drinking water and doing everything within the guides of infection control.

Promoting the programming that continues to be available for them is so important. What we did do for those onsite employees, especially for those departments that appear to be higher stress, our Employee Assistance Program has created mini support sessions where they are actually embedding themselves in the department for a morning or an afternoon at a time and folks can just pop in for 20 minutes or whatever and have a debrief of what’s going on. So it’s not a full counseling session with an EAP therapist but it’s a mini session to get a balance of where you’re at and kind of move on for the day. Our local community wanted to help. Our foundation created and coordinated Feeding the Front Line, which provides meals to all staff, not just front line staff, particularly on weekends by these donors from the community. It is a coordinated effort and is done in a designated area and done safely and folks get their food.

Lori Thomas  It is so great to hear about the collaboration that is happening. WELCOA has seen a lot of questions come into our COVID Q&A form from health promotion and HR professionals who are working with healthcare systems. They want to know how to manage the extra stress and anxiety healthcare staff are experiencing? How can they boost morale? How can they provide the best possible support to manage mental health and safety issues? What is Gundersen Health System doing?

Sarah Havens  One of the things that we have found is that if we have staff here, you have to have the leader here. The presence of the role modeling and showing that we are all in this together is so important. We are lucky in that we are not in one of those larger communities that have been hit so hard. We, in this part of the country, have had more time to prepare as it has come in waves and started more on the coast and made its way to us. I would say to prepare as much as you can. I think to have a central focus for communication is really important to continue to roll that information out to employees as fast as you can on a very frequent basis and to be transparent in their communications.

The presence of the role modeling and showing that we are all in this together is so important.

Jessica Boland  To piggyback off that, Sarah, in that communication, I would say provide information about what resources are available for staff during this time. That should include internal and external resources such as EAP services, wellness coaching, spiritual care, 24-hour nurse advisor or telemedicine lines and 24-hour crisis lines available. It is important to remind staff they are not alone during this time and encourage them to use available resources if they feel they can’t cope or have questions about child care, or food, or transportation. Connecting them with the resources through their employer, but also looking community wide and let them know what is available to keep everybody supported.

Sarah Havens  That’s a really good point Jess, that there are internal and external resources and to use them and to communicate them. Again, communicate, communicate, communicate! People need to hear things more than once and when you are in a distressed situation you need to hear them even more.

Jessica Boland  And I think one of the things too, that our organization has made a point of being very transparent so I think as companies are going along to be as transparent as possible. Even if leaders may not know the answers right away and the messages are still being processed, be transparent about that. Keep people updated as much as possible even if the plan is needing to be updated or created depending on what is happening in the community.

Even if leaders may not know the answers right away and the messages are still being processed, be transparent about that.

Lori Thomas  There are a couple of things that you both have touched on that I would love to dive a little deeper into. Communication and transparency are huge. I would love to hear, in looking at communication and transparency, has your organization been intentional in communicating specifically with leadership to ensure that all employees are receiving the same messaging from their leaders no matter what level of leadership it is?

Sarah Havens  Yes, leaders are getting at least daily emails and approximately weekly we have a live session with our CEO and senior leaders to provide announcements and pertinent updates. Once we have received that information as leaders, similar communication is then crafted for the rest of the staff. It is a layered system where everyone is getting that information and it is rolled out in a methodical way. But there are so many changes day by day and we’re an organization that practices LEAN methodology so people who are involved in that work are the ones that are helping make the recommendations and changes for process on the foundation built by our previous disaster planning. As they’ve experienced how to do something different, we have to get that new system or that new way of doing it communicated to other groups of employees. New SOP’s and flows and everything need to be communicated throughout the system. Whether or not you are in a patient care area, you need to know what is going on because you are supporting those folks or we are all ambassadors of the organization and we have to have an understanding of what is going on and be armed with as much information as possible so we can keep information accurate in the community as well. We are fortunate here in that we have positive news media that are our partners. In sharing stories and change in processes of what is happening and where the drive-in clinics are and what the criteria are for involvement.

But there are so many changes day by day and we’re an organization that practices LEAN methodology so people who are involved in that work are the ones that are helping make the recommendations and changes for process.

Sara Martin  This is amazing! It really is coming through all of the intentionality behind everything that you guys do and the collaboration you are doing. It is great to see the importance of people feeling cared for as humans by their organization and that you guys just really get it! It is so cool to hear all of the different pieces that go into rolling this out in a really responsible, communicative, collaborative way.

Sarah Havens  (SH) We have created an employee support workgroup. This came about because ideas were coming in from various sources. In order to look at some of these employee needs in a more systematic way, we created this group. Our first message that went out included resources immediately available for our employees. We provided them EAP information, the new EAP support sessions, wellness coaching, spiritual care, and the 211 resource (for which Gundersen is actually the corporate sponsor). The foundation is providing additional in-kind and financial support from the community to help what we want to do. We have a collaborative group of leadership and staff members on the workgroup.

Lori Thomas  Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and helping others that may be experiencing some of the same things with ideas that have worked well for you. Before we wrap up, is there anything more you would like to talk about today?

Sarah Havens  You know, while we have been fortunate to not have experienced what some of the larger communities have seen in volume, we do have limited supply of safety equipment. If anybody has home-made masks they want to send our way, we can use those! We don’t need ventilators right now, which is good, but as we are starting to open up more appointments with patients and everybody needs to wear a mask, we now need the cloth masks.

Jessica Boland  The last thing I want to emphasize is that people should be reaching out to their primary care provider. We have mentioned communicating the different internal and external resources available for people, but anybody that is having physical symptoms or even trouble coping, should be reaching out to their doctor to help guide them.

Sarah Havens  We also have on our Gundersen Health page something called the Renewal Center, which is available for anybody and certainly any company is welcome to use it. There are some meditation tips, music, and calming visuals to help identify ways to renew ourselves and keep our lives in balance. We are happy to share these resources with your members.

Lori Thomas  Thank you so much, this really has been amazing speaking with you both and has warmed my heart and spirit!

Sarah Havens  Thank you! We are happy to be able to help and share what we have learned with others in similar situations.

Sarah Havens

Sarah Havens, B.S., M.A.

Director, Office of Population Health • Gundersen Health System

Sarah Havens, B.S., M.A., directs the Office of Population Health at Gundersen Health System. Sarah leads community benefit strategy and corporate support initiatives that enhance integration and collaboration between Gundersen, organizational partners and/or communities throughout the service region. In addition she sets strategic direction and manages Gundersen’s health improvement efforts for patients, employees, worksite partners and the community, supporting overall population health goals. Sarah currently serves on several boards including the Wisconsin Wellness Council and is co-lead for the Well County La Crosse initiative. Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health Education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a Master’s degree in Servant Leadership from Viterbo University.

Jessica Boland

Jessica Boland, B.S., MPH

Worksite Wellness Consultant, Office of Population Health • Gundersen Health System

Jessica Boland, B.S., MPH, is a Worksite Wellness Consultant in the Office of Population Health at Gundersen Health System. Jessica leads the department’s worksite wellness initiatives by coordinating and staffing health events, providing point of care testing, biometric screenings, and serving as a resource for participants regarding follow-up care options. She works with business leaders in the design, development and implementation of employee programs and services that will meet employee business objectives. In addition, Jessica is a wellness coach and loves to help people set and achieve wellness goals. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health Education and a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. In her free time she enjoys serving in leadership roles in her children’s swimming and baseball teams.

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