Dr. El

Employees leave their positions for many reasons — organizational restructuring, family needs, a better offer — and they exit their jobs in a variety of different ways. Some sneak out quietly so that their coworkers find out only after they’re already gone. Others have a swift, drama-filled exit, walking off after an argument, never to return.

While we as individuals may have no say over how our companies discharge workers, if we’re voluntarily leaving an organization, we’re likely to have a significant amount of control over how we depart. For professionals hoping to maintain connections with colleagues, leave-taking is an opportunity to create a positive last impression. While we’re making the effort to finish up our work and create a smooth handoff of responsibilities, we also can showcase our expertise in handling exits.

As I noted in a column about how to fire staff members, “The Good-bye Guide: Why and how to terminate tenderly in LTC,” endings of all kinds are especially important in this field. Beloved residents may die unexpectedly or be transferred to the hospital and vanish from our lives. With the departure of each resident, their families disappear as well, compounding the loss.

This steady but generally unacknowledged drumbeat of sadness has a strong impact on workers. (I believe it’s why many employees don’t complete their first year. For more on that topic, see “Absenteeism and turnover in LTC? Death anxiety could be the cause”.) In an environment where there are many sudden and sometimes disturbing endings, well-planned departures can be opportunities to heal some of this pain.  

They also can help to solidify connections and offer an opening to obtain contact information for colleagues with whom you’d like to stay in touch after you’ve gone.

There are entire volumes devoted to the psychological process of termination, but I’ve created a quick guide below based on my experiences with leave-taking in LTC:

  1. Give people time to emotionally and practically process your departure. Typically, this is two to four weeks, depending on the level of your interactions with them.
  2. Tell the higher-ups first. The first people who should know you’re leaving are the ones who are going to have to find a replacement for your position.
  3. Notify department heads before direct care staff. This allows them the chance to be prepared for the responses of their team and minimizes the connection-damaging possibility that they’ll learn the news from a subordinate.
  4. Inform staff members with whom you’ve had a more personal relationship, whatever their role in the organization. In a recent job change, I informed the social workers early on in the process and I also made a point of speaking privately with other coworkers including a rehab therapist, certain nurses and aides and the housekeeper I chat with daily because her supply closet is next to my office. Each person I told individually expressed gratitude that I’d done so.
  5. Tell the residents and families with whom you’ve been working. As a psychologist treating longer-term residents, I allow three weeks for the process. The first week is breaking the news and being present for their feelings, the second is discussing their accomplishments in psychotherapy and what they might want to work on with a new therapist, and the third is reinforcing their psychotherapeutic achievements, saying goodbye and reassuring them of continuity of care with the new psychologist. On the short-term floors, two weeks is generally sufficient because the depth of the relationship hasn’t been established and telling them too soon can prevent rapport from developing. Adapt this as needed for your position.
  6. Make a unit-wide sweep. In the small-town environment of the nursing home, it can be a challenge to reach everyone before the news of a departure spreads. To have the best chance of personally informing my residents, I told all of those on each floor on the same day.
  7. Enlist resident supports. If residents seem particularly upset about your leaving, inform their social worker and/or request an evaluation by the psychologist since old losses can be triggered by new ones.
  8. Take care of yourself. Residents aren’t the only ones who can be triggered by loss. Having to say goodbye to many people with whom you’ve grown attached can be difficult even under the best of circumstances. Getting extra support from friends and family and engaging in “radical self-care” can help you cope with the feelings generated from being present throughout this process.

As challenging as it can be to walk through several weeks of leave-taking, it has its rewards. In addition to solidifying professional connections, helping to heal old wounds of loss and creating a good last impression as an expert on endings, a thorough goodbye gives community members the chance to tell you how much they value you — and you might be surprised at how much they do.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with over 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.