Sometimes it’s hard to see the silver linings when you’re in the thick of a tough situation. And the COVID-19 battle is unlike anything the world, especially the senior care industry, has faced. None of us were prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. I’m sure you have all felt helpless at times and still do. And while the initial shock of the situation is beginning to subside, there are still challenging times ahead. However, having learned from our experiences, I feel we are better prepared in the event of what many say is an inevitable second wave.
We've all watched you rise to the occasion. You’ve quickly implemented processes to help residents and staff without hesitation. You knew what you had to do and you did it – no time wasted. And while we know there were a number of roadblocks along the way (i.e. access to proper PPE, testing materials, etc.), you should all pat yourselves on the back for everything you’ve accomplished in spite of these challenges. It’s truly incredible.
I am a believer that out of every negative comes a positive. And the events of COVID-19 are no exception. Here are five ways the industry has grown and evolved since the onset of the pandemic and how these experiences are positioning us for a brighter future.
Communication between management and employees has improved.
Communication is always important, but it’s not always a priority. As the COVID-19 crisis began, providers immediately ramped up their communication practices. In our customer data alone, we saw a significant uptick in use of OnShift’s messaging platform to the tune of a 28% increase in messages sent from management to staff about important COVID-19-related information.
Many of the messages being sent were important updates around things like PPE, safety precautions, updated PTO and sick leave policies, and other plans of action. Beyond that, providers have been actively reaching out to their frontline workforce to provide words of encouragement and create a connection between leadership and those in the community. The CEO of a larger organization we work with even sent a video message to his staff to assure them that the proper steps and procedures were being put in place to keep residents and staff safe.
But this communication is not one-sided; it’s a full circle. Organizations are asking employees to share feedback about their experience – their fears and concerns, any challenges they are facing and how management can better support them during this time. One provider was even reminded of the resourcefulness of their staff. When one community learned their PPE delivery was delayed, an aide suggested they visit the dollar store to get creative in the meantime. I loved this story because it serves as a reminder to not only listen to what staff have to say, but to encourage them to speak up and share their ideas.
We are supporting staff more than ever before.
Providers are really listening to what employees have to say and implementing policies, perks and programs to help. In our employee engagement software, we’ve seen a 3x increase in surveys sent to staff to measure sentiment. And providers are taking what they’re hearing to develop meaningful solutions for their employees, completing that feedback loop that is so critical in the workplace.
Many employees expressed concerns around access to childcare, so providers offered a stipend, set up makeshift daycares in their communities and even rented hotel rooms and had employees on the clock take turns babysitting.
Many household incomes were compromised by layoffs and furloughs due to COVID-19. To help offset these upsets, many providers began offering access to earned wages between paychecks to give employees access to their money when they need it. And to show how valued their work is during this difficult time, many organizations began offering hero pay or even one-time hero bonuses.
However, as the dust settles, states begin to reopen and things like hero pay become less of a priority, we must continue to show frontline staff that they are valued in other ways and are still the heroes in our communities.
Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, says it best: “Our heroic frontline workers who are right now risking — and sometimes losing — their lives. But we have for a long time paid them too little, recognized them too little. We need to professionalize the people who work in nursing homes, because they’re special people that are doing amazing work — and yet I think as a country, we just haven’t given them their due, and we need to do that,” she told Skilled Nursing News.
COVID-19 taught us to listen to our employees in a way we haven’t before. And this is something that we should continue to do, regardless of the current state of the pandemic.
Our recruiting pipeline has grown.
It’s estimated that 13.3% of the U.S. workforce is now jobless. And while openings in senior care were not widely advertised in the news like other industries, we still managed to spread the available, rewarding work.
Providers that I have spoken with have said they’ve seen success in targeting this new labor pool spawned from the pandemic. I hope that some of these people that have joined us stay with us long term when they see what we can offer.
Prior to the crisis we faced a major workforce shortage. And while the crises obviously has not solved that issue, it has given us a chance to show those outside the industry that we are not only a stable career choice, but a rewarding one as well.
Resident engagement programs have evolved.
Unable to conduct group activities, communities have gotten creative with individualized programming and managed to maintain some semblance of a social atmosphere for residents. And although many residents were isolated and lonely at times, activity directors and caregivers across the country have stepped up to provide an extra level of care to keep residents engaged and thriving.
I’ve seen activities like remote control car races down the hallway, animal visits to residents’ windows (one featuring a zebra!) and drive-by parades for birthdays and even for those that beat COVID-19. In an effort dubbed “Senior to Senior Wisdom,” one community had residents write congratulatory messages with a few words of advice to the class of 2020 as they venture out into the world.
And to keep residents connected with their families, communities have invested in outside living room areas for socially distanced visits, arranged bedroom window meet and greets and have spent countless hours working with residents to FaceTime their loved ones.
We are also seeing an uptick in parallel programming, which are activities that engage residents and staff at the same time. For example, one initiative gives residents access to a platform that lets them write ‘thank you’ notes to staff. These activities are a great way to connect residents and caregivers, allow residents to express their gratitude and to make staff feel appreciated for all that they do.
Our challenges have been spotlighted and spurred discussions around more support.
As an industry struggling before the onset of the pandemic, many of our challenges were only magnified when this all began. After all, we are responsible for caring for the population deemed most vulnerable to the virus.
The media has taken note and has painted the picture of an industry struggling to secure PPE and testing equipment, with high rates of infection, and unfortunately, death due to COVID-19. Smith Sloan has been very outspoken and a true advocate for organizations during this time. She cites lack of government support, being underfunded and longstanding staffing issues as the culprits behind many of our current challenges. However, she sees this as the reawakening we needed.
“My hope is that this pandemic will lead us into that serious conversation that we should have had decades ago, and we haven’t,” she told Skilled Nursing News.
I hope that I’ve helped you see a few of the positives coming out during this time. Should a second wave occur, I have no doubt that we will be better equipped to handle it. And beyond COVID-19, it will change how we think about the “employee experience” as well as redefine the relationships we have with our staff.
Going forward, it’s important to stay true to your company culture, listen to your team and keep lines of communication open. I am confident that if we stay true to our values and mission, keep communicating with and supporting staff and remain agile we will get to the other side.
In the meantime, know that we all see the heroic work you are doing and are supporting you from the sidelines. Thank you for your unwavering bravery and commitment during this extremely challenging time.