Re-Focusing HR in Wake of COVID-19: Tips for Healthcare Professionals

October 27, 2020
Diane Psaras
Diane Psaras

Healthcare HR professionals—if they haven’t already—must reshape the workplace each and every day by focusing intently and with new eyes on what matters most during this ongoing pandemic: employees.

As a chief human resources officer, I and the rest of the world experienced 2020 as a year of unpredicted challenges and changes that overwhelmed—and still have the potential to overwhelm—entire industries.

Now that I’ve worked amidst COVID-19 as a chief HR officer for the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care, it’s clear that healthcare HR professionals—if they haven’t already—must reshape the workplace each and every day by focusing intently and with new eyes on what matters most during this ongoing pandemic: employees.

The time is now to invest in people, make talent retention and acquisition a primary HR focus, and acknowledge things will not return to where they were any time soon, if at all. We can create a new future by doing the right thing now for employees, having a clear framework for change, and finding new solutions by asking key questions:

  • What do employees need to work successfully during a pandemic?
  • What do they need at work?
  • What do they need as individuals facing equally challenging personal issues at home?
  • What are they telling us as their managers and how can we respond in ways that are employee-focused, heartfelt, action-oriented, and reassuring?
  • What information do we need as managers and HR executives to innovate and support change?
  • How can we respond in real time and communicate new solutions effectively to all stakeholders?

The 2021-Forward Approach to Healthcare HR: 3 Guiding Principles

One of the biggest HR challenges during COVID-19 has been the ability to assess and change rapidly as a healthcare provider so we can:

  • support our employees
  • support our healthcare partners and the patients they refer to us
  • continue to provide safe, compassionate, end-of-life care to our patients and their families

Consider these guiding principles as you shape employee policies and the workplace for 2021:

1. Refocus HR and Talent Acquisition in the Healthcare Industry

Throw out traditional HR thinking as you adapt to the new healthcare climate. HR professionals must act quickly with a refreshed view of all policies that affect clinical and non-clinical employees in the healthcare ecosystem, starting with recruiting and interviewing.

If they haven’t already, video platforms can effectively replace in-person job fairs and in-office screening interviews, followed by as much virtual or cloud-based pre-training and on-boarding as possible. Supporting these activities outside of the traditional face-to-face interview process and new-employee ramp-up process reassures candidates of the employer’s commitment to safety, while still providing the necessary tools and training to support new-hire success.

Likewise, additional training gives existing employees the information and confidence they need to face new challenges, learn new technologies, work safely, and carry out new care protocols. Once COVID-19 entered the healthcare lexicon, for example, VITAS quickly launched 35 new training modules on a range of topics: personal protective equipment use, hand-washing practices, safe patient care, and return-to-office safety standards. Employees learned new processes for using telehealth platforms for patient-family consultations, patient evaluations, seamless hospice admissions, caregiver education and other routine hospice services, including virtual chaplain-led prayer sessions and social worker visits.

Re-think how work is done from the employees’ perspective. Does everyone have to remain in the office? Is work-at-home a possibility for some employees? Is job-sharing an option for employees who want to continue working but on a limited schedule because of family responsibilities? How can traditional offices be re-configured or altered to accommodate physical barriers, social distancing, and employee safety?

A bit of creativity and flexibility can relieve employees’ new and ongoing worries—while simultaneously proving to them that their employer is aware of their challenges and willing to meet them head-on with new solutions.

2. Focus on Employees: What do They Need and When do They Need It?

Human resources professionals must focus energy where it matters most: on the employees. What new types of benefits and policies will support them as satisfied healthcare employees, individuals, and family members?

Benefits that make a real difference for employees include additional paid time off (PTO), more generous PTO rollover policies, and extended leaves of absence, especially for those who become ill/quarantined or who have childcare or eldercare responsibilities at home. Many employees worry most about their ability to keep working and providing for their families. Easing that worry by giving them time they need to recover or care for their loved ones, while assuring them their job will be waiting for them, demonstrates to employees that they are valued.

What about perks for employees who worry about their health and safety, regardless of whether they sign on for company-provided health coverage? Consider free access to a telehealth service (even if only for a limited time) for employees and their families. While the pandemic has brought telemedicine into the spotlight, 83% of patients expect to use virtual care after the pandemic resolves, making this benefit a surefire way to support employees for the long-term.

Furthermore, this type of benefit can reassure employees that they can continue to receive routine medical care—especially if their own physicians’ offices are operating at limited capacity or if they feel an emergency department visit during a pandemic is too risky. Other perks can include company-provided flu vaccine programs or vouchers, emotional/mental health counseling services to address employee stress and anxiety, even road-assistance services for employees who use their own vehicles for work and worry about being stranded during a pandemic.

Newly visible initiatives can also serve as evidence of employer awareness, understanding, and response to new realities. Designation of an infection control manager, for example, has the potential to make employees feel more confident if they know someone is regularly monitoring employee health, quarantine status, and return-to-work protocols according to recent guidelines.

3. Expect and Reward Change, and Don’t Look Away for a Second Because More Is Coming

This pandemic was a wake-up call, a giant global shiver that quickly ushered in change for the entire healthcare profession and numerous once-routine aspects of daily life. Change related to COVID-19 will continue to emerge in predictable and unexpected ways.

As HR professionals, we must be aware and ready to react, respond, and implement change at any given moment. Some employees may leave, while others will re-dedicate themselves to an even stronger work ethic and purpose. Interested candidates will need assurances that their decision to enter healthcare will be supported, valued, and rewarded. Our job as HR professionals is to work with every single employee and recruit to help them continue to succeed so that we, as healthcare providers, can continue to provide care.

What Key Activities Can Support a 2021-Forward Approach?

Regular, daily communication among all executives and managers creates a critical pipeline of information, data, ideas, needs, and brainstorming. Sustain regular communication from top-down and bottom-up people-first perspectives. Constant sharing of information and data keeps the company nimble, agile, and poised to pivot at a moment’s notice.

What’s ahead for HR? The year 2020 has taught us to remain prepared for anything. It has also reinforced the wisdom of focusing our attention where it matters most: on our employees, so they can do their jobs effectively, continue to pursue their passions, and support the company’s growth and success.

Diane Psaras is chief human resources officer and executive vice president at VITAS® Healthcare, the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care.