As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, it’s clear to many senior living providers that this is a marathon, not a sprint. But spending month after month protecting residents against a deadly disease can take a toll on caregivers’ mental and physical health.
That lesson has come through loud and clear for providers such as Bloomfield, New Jersey-based Juniper Communities and The Woodlands, Texas-based Avanti Senior Living. While both companies have a handle on mitigating the disease, the effect on their associates’ wellbeings has been significant.
“Covid fatigue is very, very real,” Avanti COO Lori Alford said Thursday during a webinar organized by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC). “And what we started to realize was, there’s no playbook for this.”
In recent weeks, both companies have explored and implemented new ways to keep morale high among staff and management. For Avanti, that has also come with the realization that the old ways of motivating employees aren’t working like they once had.
“High-fiving people down the hallway, passing out candy bars, sending kudos, sending flowers, maybe even sending some adult beverages to their homes — all of those things that we have done and do extraordinarily well — we realized we needed to do something different,” Alford said.
Frontline workers aren’t the only ones affected, either — just ask Juniper Founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann.
“I am an eternal optimist, or have been, and the early days of Covid were very, very, very difficult for me,” Katzmann said. “I learned I couldn’t work hard enough, and nothing I did could control some of the outcomes and the sadness and the feelings of guilt.”
The need to address senior living workers’ mental health is great, given the magnitude of the pandemic and its many stressors, according to Dan Brown, an executive coach with Arden Coaching. And there is new and emerging evidence that young adults, particularly those who work as caregivers or essential workers, are more likely to consider suicide as they deal with the pandemic. Among providers, that has driven a greater focus on helping workers overcome feelings of anxiety, fear and loss.
“We have an obligation to be very attuned and attentive to the markers of stress,” Brown said during Thursday’s webinar. “Not only our own, but the stress that may be experienced by people who are working on the front line.”
Battling ‘Covid fatigue’
Realizing that many of the old strategies are less effective in the midst of a pandemic, Alford and Avanti took a different approach. About five weeks ago, the company started implementing a new six-week coaching program for its home-office and sales employees as well as its executive directors. The program is meant to help employees stay positive, especially when the going gets tough.
“Our sales people come to work, and they’re like, ‘Yes! Covid is not getting in my way, because I can do this,’” Alford said. “And our operations team is learning, ‘Hey, just because a family member yells at you because they can’t see their loved one, don’t absorb it, don’t take it personally.’”
Avanti is currently planning a second phase of the program for its other department heads. The company also sees a need to provide health coaching for its frontline staff and nurses, Alford said.
At Juniper, Katzmann has coped through difficult times by relying on support from her peers. Katzmann and Alford belong to an 11-member C-suite group that meets to discuss current issues and best practices on Tuesdays, and Katzmann also belongs to another group of women CEOs founded by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) CEO Cindy Baier.
“For many of us leaders, it’s been a great source of support, strength and solutions,” Katzmann said. “At the end of the day, we all benefit when we all do well … so we need to support one another through this.”
One tool that both providers haven’t leaned on as much is hero pay, or the practice of paying workers more due to the risks presented by Covid-19. Although the practice helped boost spirits during the early days of the pandemic, Avanti has since focused its efforts on building culture.
“We just found that our culture stood on its own, and our teams continued to show up,” Alford said. “We’ve been able to hire people and keep our people with it.”
Brown recommends that senior living leaders look for signs that their staff are feeling mental fatigue in order to intervene before there is a crisis. One big but common warning sign: persistent feelings of guilt.
“That feeling of guilt can really push and push and push that human being beyond any limit that’s tolerable,” he said. “We know that guilt also is a predictor of depression, and we also know that depression can lead, if not treated, to suicide … and substance abuse.”
Another warning sign to watch out for among staff are reactions that seem incongruent, such as reacting to tragic news by smiling or laughing, or having no reaction at all.
“You might just inquire: This is a really sad situation, but I don’t see any sadness in your face right now. Is something missing?” Brown said. “Or you just might ask a gentle question: I noticed that you’ve been really cordoning yourself off, or that you have been washing your hands more than you need to. Where else is this showing up in your life?”
Though it is not something any senior living leader usually wants to think about, Brown said it’s a good idea for leaders to have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on hand, just in case. And leaders should consider their own mental health, too, even if they aren’t feeling particularly at risk.
“That may be at the extremes of mental health, but all of us are suffering from stress,” Brown said. “And it calls us to think very carefully, how do we take care of ourselves, even if we’re not at risk of depression?”