Digging Deep: Lessons from the Field to Care for Yourself and Others During Times of Prolonged Stres

As the leader of CFAR’s healthcare practice and in my role as Regent for the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), I was honored to host a webinar last week for healthcare leaders grappling with questions about how to care for themselves and for others (their teams, their patients, their families) in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. My colleagues at ACHE Rhode Island and I wanted to create a safe space to address the kinds of questions participants were asking: How do I help overwhelmed teams of healthcare providers focus on what’s most important, even as they fear for their own safety? How do I support cancer patients as they’re asked to delay their treatments? What’s the best way to engage staff who may seem apathetic or unemotional during this time of uncertainty?

We know from the experience of working with leaders and caregivers in times of turbulence and uncertainty just how important it is to provide a sense of connection and direction. The changes people are facing in how they are working—whether redeployed in a new way to respond to COVID-19, working from home, or possibly even furloughed—require leaders to take up the mantle to create some sense of stability. The impact on people’s mental health is already surging, and will continue even as the pandemic and the constraints of our physical distancing begin to subside. Consider research from past pandemics (like SARS in 2003) and large scale traumas (like 9/11), where researchers have demonstrated increase rates of depression, PTSD, domestic violence and substance use disorder. Just last week, JAMA published a look at the mental health implications of COVID-19 and the importance of prevention and early intervention. These issues call for leaders to take up their work with a dual task—to address the current challenges and to keep a line of sight to the longer-term as we slowly emerge into whatever the new normal will be.

Dr. Nelly Burdette, the Associate Vice President of Integrated Behavioral Health at Providence Community Health Centers, the largest federally-qualified health center in Rhode Island, shared some important and timely advice as our guest speaker. She drew on the framework of Dr. Russ Harris, who put together a practical piece informed by Acceptance and Commitment Theory (FACE COVID by Dr. Russ Harris) based on the mnemonic: FACE COVID.

F = Focus on what’s in your control

A = Acknowledge your thoughts & feelings

C = Come back into your body

E = Engage in what you’re doing

C = Committed action

O = Opening up

V = Values

I = Identify resources

D = Disinfect & distance

Dr. Burdette provided helpful approaches to support people, whether by encouraging us to focus on what we can control (our actions) rather than what we can’t control (our feelings), as well as how to ground and center ourselves (as easily as taking deep breaths or squeezing our hands into fists). These simple ideas were incredibly powerful and I know I will be using them at work and at home!

ACHE of Rhode Island was proud to co-sponsor the event with ACHE of Massachusetts and the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Executives to enable people to come together, even in the midst of the crisis. Though our typical events garner 30 or so people to join, we were heartened that nearly 300 signed up—from as far as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware! It was clear that the topic struck a nerve and that people are searching for ways to navigate this incredibly uncertain and destabilizing time. You can watch/listen to the recording HERE.

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