The COVID-19 pandemic changed what we consider normal, and leaders across all industries continue to strive to understand how to best adapt. One significant change that happened almost overnight was an infrastructure for a remote workforce. Many employees moved their entire workstations home to securely access their organizations’ network and continue their day-to-day operations. Within most health information management (HIM) departments, coding staff were already remote, so the real transition occurred among the operational staff, who perform duties such as data integrity, and other staff whose duties were deemed as operationally feasible within the remote work environment.
Outside of the physical changes that impacted leaders and staff, real conversations began to occur surrounding mental health. Very quickly, discussions about the difficulties people were facing—dealing with remote schooling for children, becoming a caretaker for an elderly parent, contracting COVID-19, experiencing increased anxiety and depression—became prevalent.
Prioritizing Mental Health
HIM leaders are not qualified mental health experts, but when we think about the need to prioritize the mental health of our teams and ourselves, we need to understand the resources available to us and learn to recognize the signs of people struggling. Observing these changes within your employees opens the opportunity through conversation to see what is going on, and it shows that you care by noticing and showing compassion.
According to the Child Adolescent Psychiatry Nursing journal article titled “Suicide among adolescents and youths during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns: A press media reports-based exploratory study,” there was an increase in suicide incidences among school-age children during the pandemic. Many of the children who you or your staff were homeschooling may have experienced additional stressors from their social interactions that were either minimized or eliminated due to lockdowns and other restrictions. Parents were not only worried about performing their remote work; they were also trying to ensure that their children were successful in their studies and help them navigate through potential changes in their children’s mental health.
According to The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), National Vital Statistics System data for the 2020 cause of death for all races and sexes, people between the ages of 55-65+ had COVID-19 as the third leading cause of death compared to any other age group. The total COVID-19 deaths for all ages was 350,831, with 324,926 being within the 55-65+ age group. People were losing their parents and grandparents, and most experienced a complete halt on social interaction with these family members as a method to protect them. As leaders, we witnessed and were a part of the healthcare community efforts to test asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals with the goal of slowing the transmission rates. Outside of the physical impacts of contracting COVID-19, one study published within the Lancet titled “Depression and anxiety during COVID-19” concluded that there was an increase in major depressive and anxiety disorders globally.
Building the necessary skills to help navigate and create a culture that fosters awareness around mental health is the first step in reducing mental health stigmas. Oftentimes people with mental health issues are less likely to speak up, as they may feel like they do not want to burden people with their issues. Proactively sharing the resources available to employees goes a long way. In fact, one study showed that “almost 46% of all workers … said that their company had not proactively shared those.”
Learning methods to cope with the prevalent stress and uncertainties also better equips you as a leader to share it with others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s How Right Now resource is a great starting point. This interactive website helps you by first selecting how you are currently feeling (afraid, angry, grieving, lonely, sad, stressed, worried, and unsure) and provides information on what you can do to learn about coping and who to contact to handle a current crisis. Other immediate things that you or your employees can do is get in contact with your employee assistance program for mental health resources.
Leadership skills are constructed around the ability to inspire, build, develop, and lead people, processes, and technology. However, we can probably agree that the pandemic has taught us to slow down and lead more with emotional intelligence (EI). EI starts with self-awareness and ultimately trickles down with a positive effect on others. I challenge you to simply stop and pay attention to that employee with a new issue affecting their job performance and start a conversation from a different point of view. Even just listening can make all the difference in the world.
Dana A. Victor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a health information administrator at Northside Hospital in Lawrenceville, GA.