Mikelle Moore on recognizing all hospital workers during COVID-19

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In this episode, we’re talking with Mikelle Moore, senior vice president and chief community health officer at Intermountain Healthcare. Mikelle has been with Intermountain Healthcare for more than 22 years. Last year, then Utah governor Gary Herbert called on Mikelle to be a part of the state’s COVID-19 task force. She also organized Intermountain’s MaskUp campaign and started a free call-in resource for those in need of emotional support. This year, Mikelle was named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders.

Let’s dive into our conversation with Mikelle, who is sharing her insight on how hospital leaders can recognize all healthcare workers’ contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Hello, Mikelle. Thank you so much for being here. How are you doing?

MIKELLE MOORE: I’m doing great, Kadesha. How are you?

MODERN HEALTHCARE: I’m doing well. Congratulations on becoming one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders. Congratulations, that’s a huge honor.

MIKELLE MOORE: Oh, thank you so much. It is a huge honor. I’m very humbled by it. Thank you.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: We’re talking about how we can highlight people in the healthcare space who may not be getting all of the recognition they deserve, especially for their work during the pandemic. So, let me just start by painting a quick portrait of the landscape.

From June to September 2020, we know that 93% of healthcare workers reported feeling stress, and 39% said they did not feel like they had enough emotional support. Last year, more than three quarters of healthcare workers reported feeling burned out. And experts predict that health systems will increasingly encounter burnout among employees this year in 2021. And the last point is that nearly 3,000 health care workers lost their lives last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 65% were people of color. So, it’s really important for healthcare leaders to acknowledge the work and acknowledge the burden. And that’s what we want to talk to you about today.

So, my first question is, who are some of these unsung heroes that we need to be acknowledging?

MIKELLE MOORE: This has been a crisis that has gone on for a year now. And we are used to dealing with crisis in healthcare. But it’s crisis in terms of trauma coming in, or a spike in RSV season — something that very rarely lasts a year. And it’s really beginning to wear on, certainly, very frontline healthcare providers, like our critical care physicians and respiratory therapists and nurses, who are day in and day out caring for patients in the ICU.

But given the long-term nature of this pandemic, it’s really beginning to stress everyone involved in healthcare. Even thinking about our information systems people, our communications people. When you think about the amount of messaging we’ve needed to get out regarding the updates and new information coming — whether we’re talking internally or externally — that’s really taxing to people who, you know, are often not thought of as frontline healthcare workers. Or redesigning the alerts and notifications within our information systems or digital communication with patients as the vaccine comes online.

So, there are lots of unsung heroes. And another that comes to mind for me, are our pharmacists who have been at the frontline of the therapeutic side of caring for COVID, and are now very much in the frontline of deploying the vaccination strategy. And so, never got any reprieve, even as the surge has declined, now, for us in caring for those who are sick.

Similarly, I think of our health department leaders who have been really overwhelmed by all of the various public health measures that have gone into managing the pandemic. Whether it’s masking, social distancing, administering the guidelines to businesses, whom are now fully responsible for implementing vaccination strategies, while also managing relaxing of masking guidelines. And all of the criticism that goes into the work that they’re leading. I really feel for our public health colleagues and hope that we show them recognition, also respect. And that we think about, what do we need going forward in public health in our country, in order to be well prepared for these types of issues in the future?

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Who do you think has done a good job of taking a step back, and sort of lifting spirits, publicly recognizing team members — while not alienating others or pandering to certain groups?

MIKELLE MOORE: There are aspects of our community that have looked to show appreciation. I’ve seen the business community come forward with appreciation for health care workers in the form of donating food to hospitals or health systems, and offering words of support in public forums around the work that’s going on — even while the business community is trying to manage the realities of the economic environment.

I also see that health systems have attempted to do a really good job of showing appreciation for their own employees, and that’s always a work in progress. How do we make sure that people feel appreciated, they hear messages of appreciation? And that those messages are meaningful, translate, and are heard in a way that is intended? But I think we’re getting better and better at that as we go through this. So, I think there are some examples that highlight the team, and the opportunities that people have had to work together in some different ways than they ever have before.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: As a leader, it can be hard to sort of pull away from being head down in the meetings and getting things done, and take that time to recognize people who may not be getting that recognition. Why do you think this is an important step for leaders at all levels?

MIKELLE MOORE: Well, I think it’s important no matter whether you’re in a pandemic or not.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Right.

MIKELLE MOORE: And yet, I think we’ve realized it’s even more important, when people are under the kind of personal stress that we know they’re under from the data that you shared at the beginning of our conversation. So, we know that when people feel individually acknowledged for the hard work that they’re contributing, it makes them feel seen and a part of something bigger than themselves. And that that further invigorates them for doing the hard work.

I think that’s important for every level of leadership to be thinking about. How do I inspire my team? By letting them know that I’ve seen the good work that they’re doing and using the acknowledgement of that good work to boost their energy level, and inspire the continued good work. Because we’re not by any means finished. We have a lot more to do in this pandemic and in healthcare, in general. So, showing that appreciation, I think is, it’s got to be the kind of the fuel that drives you forward.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Yeah. So, what do you think is the best way to make sure that this recognition is done in a way that truly resonates with staff? I mean, some people, maybe they like the public applause. Maybe they don’t like the attention. Some people are happy with an Amazon gift card. Some people are like, no.

What do you think can be done to make sure that this recognition really does resonate and really does make that team or that person feel appreciated?

MIKELLE MOORE: Well, I think it depends on whether you’re talking about recognition that is intended for, you know, in our case, all 40,000 caregivers in the Intermountain Healthcare System, or whether we’re thinking about recognition at an individual level or a team level.

I think the first thing that I like to do when I’m getting to know a new group of people that I lead is to understand, at an individual level whenever possible, what does feel most rewarding to that person? Is it public recognition? Is it a private note? Is it a gift of some sort? Or is it added responsibility or opportunity to lead a new project? And I think whenever leaders can take that individual interest in the person or individuals they’re leading, that’s the most impactful.

And when you’re leading a really big team in a broad organization, then you have to find different mechanisms for capturing that pulse for people. It’s got to be through the leaders, and also by capturing some real-time qualitative and quantitative feedback about how your recognition can be designed. And then, how well did it play after you’ve tried it? And we’ve used some of those techniques in our work to do some pulse surveying to understand how well different things resonate with our caregivers and modify based on that. Or use social media mechanisms for tracking. What are people engaging in? What things, what stories get listened to or noticed, and then how do we do more of that?

And we’ve really learned that sharing the story of our caregivers being heroes with our community — both internal community as well as public — really feels validating to our caregivers to have their work shown. And we’ve created a series of videos showing caregivers at the front line from all different perspectives through different parts of this pandemic. And that’s been really gratifying.

Something else that I think really has helped us understand what’s playing well and what isn’t helping people feel recognized is by having leaders out rounding. When you can show healthcare workers that their leaders are willing to go into their place of work and see what’s working and what isn’t working. And then talk with them about how they’re feeling in terms of being worn down and burned out, but also what’s helping them feel safe, feel appreciated, and feel able to continue to do the work. That type of rounding really gives you a better pulse, maybe than any surveying or quantitative analytics on any of our work.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Absolutely. Go and see for yourself.

MIKELLE MOORE: Absolutely.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: So, there’s sort of been a double crisis over the last year. There was obviously the pandemic, and then there was the civil unrest last year. Is there anything that’s appropriate to do for specific groups of employees that might be handling different issues or dealing with them in different ways?

MIKELLE MOORE: Definitely. You know, if the pandemic has taught us anything, or the experiences of social discord, that we need to really be listening to the different voices in our community, whether that’s inside of our own organizations or in the communities that we serve. Because often, the overall message is masking the disparities that exist right beneath the surface. And so, I think that applies to understanding, what do our employees need from us as an organization?

And we did something right after the murder of George Floyd that I thought was really important to do and continues to be impactful in our work. It had to be virtual, of course, but we did some leadership rounding with caregivers of color in our organization. In different types of roles, whether physicians or providers of healthcare, as well as environmental services, caregivers, and all disciplines in between. To understand the lived experience of being a person of color in the workplace, but also in the community. And how are each of us experiencing, whether it’s the pandemic or things well before that, differently? That’s really helped us to understand some of the — it’s given, I guess, a different lens for our executive leadership team to be thinking about issues and understanding issues. But I’ll share a couple of other examples.

You know, we’ve really learned that despite all of our efforts during the pandemic, to ensure that Intermountain Healthcare caregivers continued to have stable employment — even while we were canceling elective surgeries and doing all of that type of work early in the pandemic — we kept people employed. And yet, the environment in which they’re experiencing the pandemic really differed, depending on the other aspects of their lives. Whether it’s a spouse going through an employment difficulty or change, or having children schooling from home or being a single parent and trying to do these things. You know, everyone experienced the pandemic in really different ways, despite what their work or their job was with Intermountain Healthcare.

We learned we really needed to be creating avenues for asking people about their needs and their experience. And so, we have an ask HR function within our organization that serves as a way to get any question answered that you might have for human resources. It very quickly, as the pandemic unfolded became — we said, this is the place to get your questions answered about whether you’re set up to work from home or not. Whether you need to take leave in order to help with childcare, or whether you want to have an alternate work environment because of the risks that you may be exposed to.

As we stood that up, we also figured out that that was a place that, while we had people on the phone or in an email or a chat exchange, we could also ask, “And how are you doing in other aspects of your life? Are there resources that we can be helpful to you with?” And we learned that people needed emotional health support, mental health and well-being support. And they needed some really temporary assistance with food or childcare, and other issues that were popping up because of what was going on around us in our community.

That led us to starting a program for delivering food boxes to caregivers’ homes when they needed it for short-term assistance, setting up an emotional health relief hotline, initially, just for our employees. We’ve now broadened it to serve the entire community. But really listening to people individually, in terms of their needs, allowed us to respond to those individual needs, but also make some systemic changes in the support we provide our caregivers, so that we could anticipate the need more readily.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: And that’s really powerful, because it says that you and your peers were willing to be students. You were willing to have conversations and not be the one sort of guiding or leading or instructing, but you were listening and learning and willing to act on what you heard. And that takes quite a bit of humility, as a leader.

MIKELLE MOORE: Well, thank you for acknowledging that. I think humility is something that is really important for any leader to bring to the table. I feel fortunate that it’s been modeled by my leader, and rewarded, if you will, in the executive leadership team at Intermountain. And so, you know, this is humility by lots of people at Intermountain reflected here.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Absolutely. So, let’s talk about the future. How should healthcare leaders support their employees who have leftover stress from the height of the pandemic, but they’ll also face more challenges as the year rolls on?

I think about some of the working parents I know who were very shocked, and sort of — I would say they’re going through a bit of PTSD from having to work from home and care for kids at the same time. Again, you mentioned that’s an audience that your leadership team really listened to. But now there are new challenges as we talk about, you know, vaccine rollout, and we talk about issues with schools and workplaces potentially returning.

How should health care leaders support their employees with the leftover stress, but also the stress to come?

MIKELLE MOORE: There’s so many different things we could talk about in this question. It’s a really big one. But if I distill it down to, you know, what do we as leaders need to be doing to support healthcare workers through the next phase, given all that we’ve learned from the pandemic thus far? I think it goes back to some of the things that we’ve already talked about.

We need to approach this next chapter with humility and with listening to what our caregivers need in order to be successful. There is no returning to what we did before, there’s only a marching forward. We know from actually asking our caregivers, what do they want in terms of a work environment as we supposedly return to work? And, of course, there are healthcare workers for whom the workplace has always been at the frontline in the nursing unit or in the hospital environment, in the central sterile supply, wherever it may be. But there are others who’ve worked in office jobs. We’ve had about 10,000 of our 40,000 who have been working remotely since March 15th of last year. And for those individuals, we’ve really been asking, “What do you want your work environment to look like going forward?” We’ve been doing that at the individual level, and then at the team level and the manager level. But everyone has a say, and that needs to shape how we go back to work, so to speak.

And I think that even as we’re contemplating that ultimate end state — you know, things will continue to change, but that point in time — the journey to get there is really important, too. We know that not all of our caregivers have chosen to get vaccinated, even as they’ve become eligible, for different personal reasons. And that creates a different environment for people to return to work in ways that protect one another, both from a privacy perspective and from contributing in equally meaningful ways. And so we really need to be listening to our caregivers, our employees, and we need to be respectful of the different ways that people can choose to contribute and be inclusive in that approach.

I hope that we emerge thinking about people as more whole beings than perhaps we did before. Thinking about mental health, physical health, home and work health, as we go into this next chapter. And that we honor the uniqueness each individual brings to the table, whether it’s the uniqueness of their home life situation, the age of their children and what they’re contemplating there, or the uniqueness of their lived experience of experiencing racism or choosing to get a vaccine or not. It all comes down to, I think, some of the same principles of knowing people and honoring people’s individual strengths, contributions, and realities — and then capturing that best potential in the way we engage them in work. And I hope that we do more of that as we go forward.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: I think you’re right. I think we don’t have a choice. Just like you said, we are not going back to how it was before, whatever that was. We have to consider the whole person now.

MIKELLE MOORE: We do, and what a tremendous lesson for healthcare, right?

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Right.

MIKELLE MOORE: That if we’re going to improve health for the people that we serve, if we’re going to honor our mission as healthcare leaders, we really always needed to be thinking about the whole person. I’m not grateful for a pandemic in any way, and yet, there’s so much to be gained from our learning over the past year to apply to our work. And I feel more optimistic than ever about our ability to meet our collective mission as health organizations.

OUTRO COMMENTS: Thank you, Mikelle Moore, for those thoughts on supporting and encouraging unsung heroes during COVID-19. The pandemic’s impact on all healthcare workers is undeniable, but it’s crucial to pause and acknowledge those employees who typically don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Again, I’m your host, Kadesha Smith, CEO of CareContent. We help health systems reach their growth goals through digital strategy and content.

Look for more episodes of Next Up at modernhealthcare.com/podcasts, or subscribe at Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or your preferred podcatcher. Thanks again for listening.

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