“When the pandemic started, morale was high. We all pulled together and worked as a team in a way we never had before. Now, it’s all changed. Employees have lost their patience; they’re extremely stressed, short with each other and even angry.”

Over the past few months, I’ve heard this example or some version of it from at least 10 long-term care professionals. It’s not surprising. To say that the past year and a half have been a challenge for elder care providers is an understatement.

Between extreme change, loss of life, stressful working conditions, fear of getting COVID-19, financial hardship, the lay media’s negative focus and so much more, the reality is that healthcare and eldercare workers have undergone trauma.

Your team members may have pulled together because they had a common goal: Keep COVID out of the building and keep spirits high. It kept them focused. Once it seemed that the worst was over, everyone could relax and feel the burden of what they had just been through and could let themselves fall apart.

Trauma is an emotional response to a deeply disturbing event, which provokes a feeling of helplessness and overwhelming and sometimes can have long-lasting effects. The trauma of the past several months is quite probably affecting your workplace culture, your employee turnover, your staffing levels and your ability to work in a respectful environment.

So, what can leaders do?

First, acknowledge that it’s real. You might think: Once we get back to our everyday activities, people will start to feel better, and everything will go back to how it was before. Nice thought, but you are underestimating the toll the pandemic has taken on the mental health of your employees (and, perhaps, even yourself.)

According to the International Council of Nurses, the proportion of nurses reporting mental health distress has risen (since 2020) from 60% to 80% in many countries. An article in Psychiatric Times reminds us that in past pandemics, front-line staff of long-term care communities faced an increased risk for anxiety, panic attacks, depression, acute stress reactions, post traumatic stress disorder and even suicide.

Acknowledge what you’ve all been through together, how incredibly stressful it was and the emotional and physical toll it has taken. Name the grief, exhaustion, overwhelmed feeling and sadness that people may be feeling because of this pandemic. Sharing your own feelings may allow others to open up about theirs.  

This brings me to the next step: Listen. If there’s one thing that leaders could do better, it’s a more consistent job of listening to employees. Don’t be afraid to let them vent and share their feelings in safe, structured environments. For instance, you could conduct a twice-monthly listening session where you sit down and ask team members their thoughts. If you’re in a situation where people are unhappy, these kinds of sessions can be tough to sit through, but just the fact that you’re willing to listen communicates volumes to your team. Be transparent about what you are planning to do to alleviate some of the stressors and ask for their help with solutions. It can be helpful to have a trained facilitator lead the sessions in more complex situations.

It’s vital that you normalize the need for mental health support after a traumatic event. Do this by sharing some of your own experiences and making a concerted effort to provide and promote resources available to your team members.

Perhaps you have a chaplain who can conduct weekly support groups. You might even contract with a counselor and make that person available to employees. If you already provide employee assistance programs, then actively promote them. If you don’t, then consider doing so. Have a lecture series for employees, to help them learn more about moving through grief, emotional and physical wellness, financial issues and other pertinent topics.

Set some boundaries on workload and encourage time off. You may want to go back to the drawing board and find alternatives to current scheduling practices, mandated overtime and staffing ratios. I know — it’s easy to say and not so easy to do, perhaps. Start by dropping the idea of “let’s get back to the way it used to be.” It’s time to go deeper and rethink your recruiting, onboarding, mentoring, and scheduling practices to address the burnout that was prevalent even before the pandemic.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of connection and laughter. Although you mustn’t substitute “fun at work” for addressing the emotional effects of the pandemic, letting loose, recounting humorous stories and celebrating the positive can also have its healing effect.

Donna Cutting, CSP, is a workplace culture consultant who has worked with senior living and other long-term care organizations for three decades. She’s the author of three books, including the forthcoming “Employees First! Inspire, Engage, and Focus on the Heart of Your Organization,” to be released by Career Press in April. For more information, visit www.redcarpetlearning.com.

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