Industry Voices—It's time for a seismic culture shift in how we think about health workers' well-being

An photo taken up close of a doctor wearing a facemask
The COVID-19 crisis has made crystal clear how vital it will be to invest in healthcare worker well-being as a priority to emerge a stronger, safer and more whole system of care. (Getty/Juanmonino)

The current global pandemic has brought unprecedented stress and trauma to healthcare workers—an extraordinarily high price for a group already suffering from staggering rates of burnout. The recent suicide of Lorna Breen, M.D., a front-line New York City emergency medicine physician, is heartbreaking.

And it's a compelling directive to healthcare leaders to prioritize the well-being of this vital workforce.  

More than 10,000 U.S. healthcare workers have contracted COVID-19, and dozens have died. Across the globe, health systems were challenged by a pandemic of this magnitude—from personal protective equipment shortages to the surge in patient volumes. Already under strain from burnout, the added toll of COVID-19 has been immense. 

Before the pandemic, more than 50% of U.S. physicians reported burnout, which is a threat to safety and quality of care. And now, they are valiantly caring for patients, often witnessing unimaginable trauma. Even for those not on the front lines, the stresses of balancing new models of remote patient care with personal responsibilities are overwhelming. And the worry of job insecurity looms given financial losses in the health sector. Strategies to restore and protect the well-being of healthcare workers must be our top priority as we find our way back to a "new normal."

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As co-chairs for well-being at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., we have striven to stay ahead of the curve with strategies to reduce the burden that our colleagues face, not just at Children’s, but across the country. Well-being is multidimensional—primarily determined by system factors and an organization’s culture. But in the face of crisis, the most urgent need is to support the personal resilience of our teams. 

Healthcare workers need tools to cope with the stresses of their work and an environment that supports them.

When the pandemic hit, we immediately launched virtual live meditation sessions twice daily for all staff and held a hospitalwide webinar on how to manage stress in times of turbulence. These offerings were embraced, so much so, that we began to share them with colleagues across the country, through our participation in the Stanford Physician Wellness Academic Consortium and the Children's Hospital Association

Hundreds of U.S. healthcare executives joined a webinar where they learned how to support their teams in challenging times. 

We also collaborated to launch an online breath-based resilience program, now offered free to all healthcare workers across the U.S. and Canada. We previously studied this program and found a significant reduction in anxiety and emotional exhaustion in our own healthcare providers. A Children’s National nurse said the practices “transformed her entire life” and allowed her “to better deal with her own emotions and her patients’.” These very breathing techniques have been used by combat veterans to overcome PTSD, a challenge many healthcare workers will no doubt face after this pandemic. So far, thousands of healthcare workers have registered to learn these breathing and meditation practices online to help them emerge whole from this time of crisis. 

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As we consider how to help healthcare workers recover from this pandemic, it is time for a seismic culture shift. 

We need to put our people and their well-being first.  

We must recognize they need systems that make their work less burdensome and tools to manage stress. After all, their well-being is the basic foundation upon which all successes in patient care and innovation rest. The COVID-19 crisis has made crystal clear how vital it will be to invest in healthcare worker well-being as a priority to emerge a stronger, safer, and more whole system of care.

When we were asked three years ago by our CEO Kurt Newman, M.D., to develop a program to enhance the well-being and fulfillment of our providers, little did we know we would soon be facing a pandemic threatening the well-being of healthcare workers globally. And even three years later, the work is only just beginning. In order to make progress, we must all, as healthcare leaders, attend to our own well-being so we can have the clarity and resolve to rectify structural and systemic barriers that threaten the well-being of our teams. 

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, but perhaps the most fundamental is that people matter. We must provide our people with an environment that supports their noble work, and tools to sustain them on their professional and personal journey. Only then can they give to patients the very best of themselves.