The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on hospice providers, including a heavy impact on its workforce. Many staff are experiencing physical and mental health challenges while continuing to deliver care to patients at highest risk. Hospices nationwide are finding new and encouraging ways to help boost morale and keep their workforce thriving amid the ongoing crisis.
Even prior to the pandemic, staffing concerns were a top challenge for providers among a growing shortage of nurses and clinicians specializing in hospice care. The importance of staff retention has become even more critical as the coronavirus spread across the nation, placing tremendous strain on workforces tasked with providing patient care while facing daily risks of infection themselves.
North Carolina-based Hospice of Davidson County recently implemented a Hospice Heroes campaign to show appreciation for workers putting themselves at consistent risk of COVID-19 infection while providing end-of-life care to patients. The campaign features an online form to leave messages of gratitude as an encouragement for their staff members. To further emphasize the campaign’s staff appreciation efforts, the provider hung a banner at their 12-bed inpatient care unit, the Henry Etta & Bruce Hinkle Hospice House.
“We want our staff to know how valued they are,” said CEO Laura Owen. “They are our greatest resource. The Hospice Heroes campaign provides the community with the opportunity to support our staff, and it’s those words of gratitude that mean the most [to them].”
More than 70 luminaries were lit in front of the Hinkle Hospice House to represent the number of clinical staff on the frontlines continuing to serve those with life-limiting illnesses. The effort received glowing responses from staff and patients alike, according to Owen.
“Whether it’s reaching out through a weekly staff check-in or sending a quick note of gratitude, staff are reminded frequently that their supervisors and directors are there to support them,” Owen told Hospice News. “Our Feel Good Friday weekly newsletter is a dedicated form of communication filled with encouraging stories and words of gratitude specifically for staff.”
Florida-headquartered Interim Healthcare, a subsidiary of Caring Brands International, has launched a staff newsletter called ‘Inspirations,’ featuring the various ways each of their locations are encouraging staff and patients facing COVID-19 challenges.
One story of support included a drive-thru breakfast at the company’s Oklahoma City franchise location, where staff could do pickups of bagged meals before heading off to deliver care in patient homes. A franchisee in Bakersfield, Calif., organized an event at which staff were given decorated cake pops and were encouraged staff to don Disney-themed clothing. Leaders asked each staff member to express in one word what they were most thankful for, along with their greatest concerns related to the pandemic. Staff gave positive feedback for the therapeutic outlet, according to President and CEO of Interim Healthcare, Jennifer Sheets.
Hospice clinicians, nurse practitioners and other field staff who are struggling to maintain quality care amid restricted access to patients and often experiencing anxiety and guilt.
“What’s causing the strain on staff is that they are constantly fighting a battle with facilities that are not letting hospice providers in,” said Sheets. “It’s already a very stressful environment, and so this [pandemic] just adds to it. Hospice workers, clinicians and caregivers are driven by something very different from any other health care setting. It has weighed heavily on our staff that can’t physically be there at the time of death or when death is drawing near for patients. It’s this almost extreme feeling of guilt for clinicians and nurses who can’t reach someone who is in need who could benefit from hospice care.”
Many hospice workers have also experienced a rise in anxiety and fear as they work to minimize risk of COVID-19 infection to themselves, their families and their patients, with feelings of depression and isolation also coming into play amid social distancing measures. Increased stress is an additional concern as employees work to address childcare needs resulting from school closures and maintain their daily lives.
However, it can be challenging for staff to come forward and seek help among stigmas associated with stress-related health concerns. In response, hospice providers have ramped up access to confidential mental health care to help workers cope with the difficult emotions resulting from the pandemic.
“I think there is definitely a stigma involved,” said Sheets. “People are often hesitant to admit when they’re feeling strained in their own mental health, especially as clinicians who are wired to fix a problem. We’re human and it’s not outside of the norm that this is stressful for all of us. Things are going to weigh on us and we need to take our own mental health into account in addition to the concerns of our patients. We gave staff an 800 number to call and talk with a counselor or counseling group that is 100% confidential.”
Even after the pandemic crisis passes, hospice providers can continue to boost staff morale with supportive efforts like these and more, maintaining a healthy workforce in a competitive market for qualified hospice candidates.
“It’s important to realize the side effects of this crisis we’re dealing with both short- and long-term,” Sheets stated. “I think staff can sometimes be an afterthought, but it’s important to secure ourselves with care before we can help others.”