It’s hard to believe 2021 is almost over as we transition from summer to fall and the Covid-19 pandemic continues to leave us feeling isolated, insecure, and exhausted. Many of my friends, co-workers, and family have expressed frustration at the lack of boundaries between a work- personal life balance, which was extremely frayed before the pandemic. (The last two HOP staff blogs discussed burn-out, self-care and healing. We have a theme going!) Now that we have been working at home for the last 18 months, this boundary seems to have disappeared altogether. Over 50% of the US workforce reports feeling burned out – 2021 is being hailed as the Great Resignation. Burnout didn’t come about solely because of the pandemic. The American workforce, especially health care workers, were suffering from this long before March 2020.

Burnout is a combination of physical and mental symptoms, such as exhaustion, negativity, and detachment from your work. Further exasperating this problem for health care workers is the feeling you are not really helping your patients or making a difference, leading to depression and other symptoms of stress and burnout. This is often referred to as compassion fatigue or morale distress. The additional stresses of Covid-19 have literally taken a large problem facing our health care workforce and set off an explosion: 1 in 5 health care workers have left their jobs and stopped working in the industry in the last year. This has created a dangerous shortage of healthcare professionals.

The problems are obvious but the solutions, less so. What can we do? Organizations and employers need to commit to creating a culture of wellness and implement organizational self-care policies. This doesn’t mean offering gym memberships (that employees often can’t find time to use) and encouraging meditation. It requires leaders to take a deep dive into examining their culture, the workload of their teams, and all policies and procedures that effect their workforce. This is easier said than done, as in some cases businesses will have to burn down the proverbial house and rebuild to truly embrace a culture change. Admittedly, that is not realistic.

A place to start is to examine the workload your team members are expected to do in a given day, week, month – is it realistic? Can they do it in the confines of Monday through Friday 9-5 and still be successful? Do they have support? Are they working to the highest level of their training? Are staff expected to answer emails after hours? Are we adhering to a policy of taking breaks and a lunch hour while working remotely?

Addressing the amount of work, we expect our teams to do is a huge first step towards supporting our employee’s mental health. Other things we can do: Build in work pauses throughout the day, set aside time for self-care breaks, make meetings shorter, and implement a policy to log off and shut down so there are clear boundaries between work and personal time. As leaders, the single biggest impact we can make towards a culture of wellness and selfcare is to be a model of the policies we create. We have to walk the walk and talk the talk.

I admittedly have failed my team in this regard in recent months. I started off my pandemic work life by taking walks throughout the day, taking walking meetings, logging off at 5 pm, not working nights and weekends, and being more mindful of the work load I took on myself. The longer the pandemic went on however, the more the lines for myself got blurred. I was on Zoom many more hours than I planned. I checked today and I was scheduled for 19.5 hours of Zoom meeting time this week -it conveniently logs it for you. I can’t even remember my last walk and talk meeting. I was sending emails at all hours of the day and working every weekend. I had even spent an entire week working more than 40 hours from Hawaii. This is not the example, quite frankly, I hoped to set. For an organization that addresses organizational self-care in our daily work for clients and health centers (we even published a guide to organizational self-care this last year) this was not leading by example. I was feeling exhausted, getting grumpy, and the lack of physical activity was affecting my mind and body. In the words of one of our team members, “Self-care was burning me out.” It was time to unplug and push reset!

To help recenter myself, and my values, I took some time. I unplugged, didn’t answer email, didn’t read email, didn’t do any work at all, to visit Yellowstone National Park. I took time to be fully present with nature, look at what wasn’t working, and set an intention to make change. I wanted to model for my team the work life balance I want them to have. I recently have been reminded that life is short. I lost a dear friend to cancer. I took a step back to notice as we reminisced about her life, and while she had a successful career, not once did her friends and family mention this. We talked about her kindness, her dedication to her family and friends, her knack for building and nurturing strong relationships, and the impact she had on her community. No one said, “Wasn’t Laura awesome because she worked 12 hours days.”

Many of my colleagues are having discussions and planning programs based on the lessons learned from the pandemic. There is no doubt that the pandemic has taught us many lessons: best practices for our future work, ways to leverage technology, and other innovative techniques to conduct our business into the future. What I hope to take away from this unprecedented time in history however, is to be kind to myself, value my team and create an environment where we work hard to create a kinder and more equitable health care system. I want to celebrate our personal successes as well as our professional ones. I am sure I will come to a point again where I find myself in the office on Saturday or checking email at midnight. When I do, I will remember my friend Laura, and be reminded of the legacy I want to leave for HOP, a culture where we not only value our great work but all that a balanced life brings to our respective communities.

With gratitude- Cindy