Building a Workplace That Cares

By Scott Jessie, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, Chief Nursing Officer, Upstate University Hospital

Scott Jessie, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, is the Chief Nursing Officer at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, NY. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the health care field, including 14 years of progressive leadership roles in the ICU, Emergency Services and the COVID-19 response team. He has earned many awards during his career, holds a master’s degree in nursing and is currently pursuing an MBA. 

The healthcare business is not the only one looking to attract and retain the best staff, but it is one of the most publicized — and among the most complicated. At Upstate, like all hospitals, nursing is the largest occupation, so we also have the greatest numbers to attract and retain.

The healthcare workforce shortage is a long-haul situation, not a six-month event. Recovery from this industry-disrupting event will take years to address. Over time, we will bounce back and will have to develop new ways of doing things. The more talent we can retain to begin with, the less we will have to rebuild.

Wellness must be incorporated into the new healthcare workforce paradigm. Nurses are the largest group of employees, but all roles need support and a work environment that cares for them as much as they care for the patients. Improving wellness support and activities will have a fundamental ripple effect for all.

Respect what they have been through, and respect them

Nurses and healthcare staff were the heroes last year. The glow has faded but their core work is the same. Two years into the pandemic no other job has seen the collective death toll of COVID, except perhaps funeral homes. We all know in nursing that you’re going to take care of people who are going to die. I worked in an ICU for almost 20 years and took care of a lot of patients who died, but this outpaces any normal expectations. And it’s across all age spectrums, which is devastating. People have been so emotionally impacted by that. This extreme situation has to be acknowledged. This has caused a never-before-seen amount of distress among all staff and we must find ways to support and help those affected.

Make Wellness more than a buzzword

Nurses and others at the front lines of care are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. The emotional toll is overwhelming for many. We need to provide ways to decompress from work while at work and at home. None of us have lived through a pandemic before, but the experience for healthcare workers has been even more unique. Things aren’t normal at home, and things at work have remained exceptionally challenging as we have now gone through four waves at this point. Nurses and others have had to change so much of their routine: how they function, working very short staffed, and continually face COVID-19 up close.

We have never experienced a crisis of this magnitude, and we need to create new ways to support the frontlines and help them cope. Not every person will need this support, but for the ones that do, it is crucial that we support them and help them recover. Ideally, I would like to be able to build an environment where people could talk to counselors on the spot — having these teams out and about on floors, so if someone has 15 minutes in the break room they might sit down and talk. Very informal. Not stressful. Not “oh my gosh, I need to see a therapist” although that might follow. More of a chance to decompress and be asked, “Hey, how are you doing? Genuinely, how are you doing?” That could be the first layer, so to speak. If they need more, we should make it easier for them to connect with additional services, with no stigma for that option.

Know the true cost of retention

It costs money to keep people. That’s the truth. But it’s not just in salaries. You have to make hard business decisions to make the work environment better, even when the pandemic deck is stacked against you. One way we’re able to make the job better is to aim to keep a tight grip on the ratios — that is the number of patients a nurse has to oversee. Reducing staffed beds and limiting surgeries are effective but extremely costly tools to manage nurse-to-patient ratios. Some may argue that we still have to protect the bottom line, and there is validity in that. At the same time, preserving our workforce — even at a cost today — will better position us for the healthcare challenges of tomorrow. People will always be our most important resource. Lower ratios are a quiet way to show staff that we really do appreciate and value them, and we are trying to do our best to keep them.

We want to do these things for the current workforce and for the next. The impact of the pandemic is staggering but nurses never stopped caring. Nurses — and everyone at the front lines —need care in return as well.