Physician and Staff Engagement – Playing the Short and Long Game

As the number of cases surge in states like Texas, Florida, and California, while other states like New York are slowly opening up, hospitals face significantly different challenges. But one thing that remains consistent is the need to help physicians and staff through this COVID-19 crisis.

Early during the pandemic, hospitals quickly pulled together resources to meet basic needs like food and child care. Externally, there was an outpouring of support from sewing homemade masks to cheering every night during shift changes. Communities abundantly rallied around front-line staff.


Now, systems face a tough question: “How do we sustain that momentum through what will surely be months of managing the pandemic, coupled with the flu?”


Start with Listening

As a result of this fast-paced change, some employees may be feeling overlooked and not heard. This demonstrates a need for health systems to focus inward in a way that addresses COVID-19 concerns now, while also creating a feedback loop to address ongoing and future needs.

Asking what physicians and staff want and what needs they have can help avoid pitfalls. Take one recent example of a well-intentioned but misguided physician communication effort. Recently, I got a text from a friend whose husband is in his final year of residency. It was a picture of a package her husband received from the health system where he works that included a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, three masks (for a family of four), and a printed note about how wearing masks keeps those around you safe. The message came through as very off-tone, given that her husband has been on the front lines for the last six months.

Developing strategies and tactics to identify staff concerns and address them before they grow further will be vital in engaging your employees during this critical time. If you haven’t formally or informally surveyed your people, now is the time.

Key Strategies:

  • Develop listening posts across the enterprise and at all levels to identify concerns and address them before they grow. Leverage existing influencer groups and designated staff who cascade messages to staff to solicit feedback.  
  • Establish ongoing townhalls, confidential concern hotlines, and/or an anonymous email address so employees are being heard and issues are quickly addressed.
  • Conduct key internal stakeholder interviews to better understand ongoing COVID concerns and how those concerns can be addressed and remedied.
  • Review employee feedback to identify areas of concern and solutions that worked for COVID but are also translatable to other areas.


Ensure Physical Safety

With the resurgence, or in many places just continued surge, of cases and with deaths now passing 155,000, the need for PPE continues. And while there are fewer shortages than there were at the beginning of the pandemic, there are still resource needs that systems must meet. As communicators, partnering with operations to understand PPE availability and other safety items to communicate will help ensure staff have the information they need to be safe.

An important part of physician and staff safety includes communicating public health messages to the broader community and enforcing those rules within each location. While masking has become unnecessarily political, health systems have a responsibility to their staff to ensure the community continues to hear the importance of masking, social distancing, and resuming activity in a safe way. This is also an area where physicians and staff can help spread the message to patients by personally mirroring system communications.


Provide Support for Behavioral and Mental Health

The impacts of COVID-19 on front-line caregivers could be profound — PTSD, trauma impact, and depression, to name a few. The need for extensive support services will continue beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, and staff will undoubtedly require continued help to ensure their well-being. This is especially true as the environment outside the hospitals becomes increasingly stressful with political and social unrest.

Launch and sustain an initiative to ensure employees are supported in their physical, emotional, and mental health, including a plan for clearly communicating the resources available to staff across a variety of channels. These tools cannot be one-size-fits-all — some may prefer in-person support, while others may prefer digital therapeutic tools.

Unfortunately, mental health can still carry a stigma, so as much as formal and informal leaders can demonstrate their use of the resources themselves and encourage others to do the same, will help break the barriers-to-use that some staff might battle. At UH Connor in Cleveland, OH, their integrative medicine team is taking the lead to build resilience and sustain good mental health among their staff. Resources include a 24/7 hotline and daily communications about exercises you can do to practice self-care — all modeled by leadership to reduce the stigma, especially among physicians, to access these support services.

Key Strategies:

  • Develop campaigns to engage staff in an integrated effort to address employee well-being.
  • Provide mental health support and tools.
  • Create (or continue) a support system of resources related to basic needs such as groceries and child care.
  • Establish peer-support networks.
  • Assess the effectiveness of activities and refine programs as needed.


Continue Expressing Appreciation

Improve employee engagement by creating a positive work environment with heartfelt reminders that your employees’ work matters significantly. Foster a sense of pride with the workforce by distributing a steady stream of content, expressing gratitude for their heart, effort, and commitment to care. This ensures employees will feel connected to the institution, and their efforts on the front-line during the crisis were seen and appreciated by the broader organization.

Key Strategies:

  • Distribute a steady stream of content expressing gratitude for the employee’s heart, effort, and commitment to care.
  • Foster a sense of pride with the workforce, finding opportunities to share encouragement from the community.
  • Create moments to celebrate organizational wins.


Employee engagement can be challenging for health systems given the number of people, the variety of roles, and the different interests and needs among staff. The pandemic has only made that harder, and yet all the more critical. Keep your efforts focused and continually evaluate what’s working and not working so you can keep your staff engaged and feeling valued no matter what the next several months hold.



July 31, 2020
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