Matt Salmon

I think it’s important that we recognize the impact COVID has had on our staff — and in some cases, recognize the damage it has done. Our staff are experiencing dissatisfaction and disconnection at levels we have never seen.

Our pre-COVID lives as long-term care professionals were hard enough. In the Northeast, we suffered with chronic staff shortages for licensed nurses and nursing assistants. The margin for error on the regulatory side was getting progressively smaller while the oversight became more punitive and complicated. Staff were working more hours than they wanted, and when they weren’t working, they were always connected. God forbid you miss a deadline on a reportable.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed us all to limits we never thought existed. For many of us, the stress of managing an infection the world had never seen was complicated by the ever-changing rules and regulations we were somehow expected to follow. We were now managing in a world where our traditional rules and regulations were constantly in flux.

What was a given for us prior to the spring of 2020 was no longer the case. Every decision was a first-in-a-lifetime career decision, and each of those decisions required a new policy and subsequent all-staff education and training. It was an incredible amount of additional work for an industry that was already overextended.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, when I was able to begin the process of reflection on my own experience, that I began to realize how much damage the pandemic inflicted on our staff.  When I started opening up about my own feelings surrounding the experience, I began to hear stories and perspectives from others. Some who seemed to be handling it well, others who were not.  

As a company, we made it a priority to give people time off when they needed it, no questions asked. I am proud of the way staff supported and continue to support one another so their friends and co-workers could actually take a break. But the more we talked and the more I listened, I began to realize the underlying issue is our staff can never truly take a break because they are always connected.

As I reflected on this issue, I realized I was part of the problem. I don’t get to my e-mail during the day, and as a result, I spend a few hours most nights on my computer responding. Staff feel obligated to answer my e-mails, no matter how routine. Once I started counting, I learned staff responses to my e-mails created more off-hours e-mails than I was actually sending. I was making an already difficult problem for my staff worse.

To break down this idea that we’re “on” all the time, I started to put some parameters in place surrounding communication and connectivity in our organization. If I could get people to routinely disconnect, I could reduce stress levels and burnout while hopefully improving the energy and creativity we lost during the pandemic.

I established our normal business hours as 7:30am to 5:30pm. Normal business hours mean that all routine communications and meetings should take place during this time. We do not e-mail, text, or call staff outside of those hours unless it is urgent or an emergency.  

I did not tell staff they had to stop working outside of those hours because many needed to. If it’s your routine to answer e-mail at night or early in the morning, please continue to do so; just send with delayed delivery, so they arrive during regular business hours.

I started this experience by changing my own behavior. Without telling anyone, I started using delayed delivery on all off-hours e-mails. That simple change reduced my own inbound off-hours e-mail by about 30%. When I rolled this program out to our management staff, my off-hours e-mails plummeted to almost none.

The result is that I have more time to concentrate on the important issues of the day, knowing the routine will be there tomorrow. Management staff have reported similar reductions in e-mail volume.  More importantly, they have reported there’s less stress when away from work. They’re actually able to disconnect, increasing time and experience with their families.  At work, I notice a difference in attention and commitment.

Across our industry, the high stress levels and burnout are leading to record levels of turnover, and worse, career long-term care professionals leaving the field. The little things we do in an effort to support staff go a long way to create an environment where people can excel. Establishing simple boundaries so your staff can rest and recover is the least we can do.

Matt Salmon is the CEO of SALMON Health and Retirement.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.