Nancy Anderson, RN, MA

A question I hear ever more frequently from senior care leaders is: “How do I really know how my employees are doing as they cope with the fear and uncertainty of our current environment?”

Crisis communication tips tend to focus on the importance of information going out from leaders to keep staff informed and updated about what is happening. While communication TO employees is critical, don’t forget the other side of the coin – hearing FROM your employees. Employee feedback is always important, but never more so than in a crisis situation. Employees need to feel heard. They want to feel confident that their leaders clearly understand their experience. And they want to be able to share their views.

Here are several actions senior care leaders are taking to make sure their employees feel heard:

Teach managers and supervisors how to lead during a crisis

During a crisis, employees rely on their manager for stability, empathy and support. Much of what people need is to simply be heard and understood by the person they report to. The manager is usually the person who knows each employee’s situation and understands what each person needs in terms of guidance and support. In large departments, it may be a frontline supervisor who is closest to his/her employees and, therefore, is in a key position to recognize how each team member is coping.

Teach frontline leaders how to recognize the symptoms of stress and burnout, and how to listen with compassion and empathy. Ask supervisors to check in with their team at least weekly to ask how they and their families are doing. Although you may not be able to solve all the problems people are facing, just listening in an empathic way can make a difference. Make sure managers and supervisors know what to do when they see someone who is personally struggling so they can connect them to helpful resources (such as employee assistance programs, counseling, emergency assistance, etc.).  

Ask the right questions and take time to listen

While the senior care world has previously faced all kinds of challenging situations, this one is personal. It not only involves employees dealing with the loss of residents whom they’ve lovingly cared for, it involves risks to their own health and well-being and that of their families. The physical, mental and emotional toll of this burden makes it imperative for leaders to attend to the health and well-being of staff. This means taking assertive measures to reduce stress and build resilience. Gallup research tells us that a key predictor of low worry and high confidence is whether each employee believes their organization is looking out for their best interests.

An essential action that leaders can take is to ask the right questions and take time to listen. This is the time to ask employees if they are getting the information, resources and support they need. Any time you meet with employees to update them on the latest news or information, build in time for questions and feedback. Make it possible for employees to feel psychologically safe to express their fears. Whether it’s a team huddle, department meeting or all-staff meeting, use part of your agenda to respond to issues, questions or concerns. You may not know the answer to every question – and that’s okay. The key is to build trust and connection by making time to listen.

Check in with employees in real time

Some organizations are using a brief pulse survey to provide a safe way for employees to share their personal experience during this particularly distressing time. While an annual or semi-annual engagement survey is great for measuring engagement levels, a pulse survey focuses on the here-and-now experience, and is a powerful way to stay connected with employees during times of high stress and uncertainty.

A pulse survey allows you to check in with every one of your employees — enabling you to get a read on what they are most concerned about or challenged with right now. Reaching out in this way signals that you care about your staff and are deeply interested in how you can best support them. Survey responses allow you to assess employee perceptions and respond to employee concerns in a targeted way to ensure they feel supported and heard.

Employee listening is never more important than in distressing times. The tangible steps you take to listen will help reduce anxiety and build trust. When this is over, employees will remember how you responded to their voice.

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.