As pandemic grinds on, health care systems tend to their own exhausted staff
Health care systems across Long Island are exploring new ways to support and retain employees battling exhaustion and burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic as it stretches into year three.
Hospital systems have created special lounges, equipped with soothing music and décor, where weary staffers can relax or even get a massage. Most of the systems have ramped up mental health services for employees, and a few are exploring ways to boost staffing so employees can take their vacations.
“Our people just need a break,” said Tony Pellicano, chief human resources officer at Catholic Health. “We are paying people premium pay and bonuses to work extra, but we are hearing ‘I don’t want to work anymore. I need time off.’ "
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued an advisory highlighting the health care worker burnout crisis across the country. In a video on his website, he cited statistics that show 54% of doctors and nurses already were experiencing burnout before the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Health care systems across Long Island are looking for ways to help employees who are suffering from burnout more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Systems are offering staff amenities, such as relaxation rooms, more mental health services, and hiring workers from agencies so employees can take vacation.
- U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the health worker burnout crisis across the country.
Murthy also pointed to figures showing 66% of nurses have considered resigning from their jobs.
A new survey of public health workers released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 40% of workers intend to leave their jobs within the next five years.
“I speak to my peers at other health systems, especially here in New York, and we are all seeing the same thing — escalated turnover rates and escalated vacancy rates,” Pellicano said.
Pellicano said Catholic Health is focusing on recruiting new workers, as well as using staffing agencies, so employees can take their time off. The health care system plans to start its own temporary staffing agency to make it easier to fill those gaps.
Dr. Adam Gonzalez, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at Stony Brook Medicine, said workers who have remained at their jobs since the start of the pandemic in 2020 are "tired and still experiencing lots of ongoing stress and anxiety.”
They are “exhausted from nonstop trauma and being always on the go," he said.
Health care workers shared with Newsday ways they have been dealing with the pandemic.
Nydia White, critical care nurse manager
Helping COVID-19 patients recover and return home has been everything to White, who works for Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, and her colleagues.
“It’s almost like Superman,” said White, of Baldwin. “We want to save everybody, and when you lose that ability, you almost feel like you lose a piece of yourself.”
During those early difficult days, White tried to be the calming influence, drawing on her almost two decades of nursing experience that included times when she had to care for 20 patients alone.
“You have to keep a level head so you don’t lose yourself and then all the people around you are not affected as well,” White, 50, said. She also encouraged colleagues to use the hospital’s Recharge Room, where they can soak in the tranquility.
White said she has little trouble relaxing once she gets home from work.
“I'm a girl that goes home and I can watch TV and be at total peace,” she said. “That’s just who I am.”
Loren Hand, registered nurse
Hand, 32, was an assistant nurse manager on the night shift at Huntington Hospital at the start of the pandemic. She had little time to think about her emotional needs.
Hand instead was helping new nurses who were overwhelmed by patients seriously ill with the mysterious new disease. And she had a 9-month-old baby at home to consider.
"You were solely dedicating the 13 hours you were here to helping patients not die," Hand said.
Once she was able to talk about what she had seen — more than a year later — Hand realized it was important for colleagues to share those experiences with others.
“People are not OK,” she said. “You feel it walking around."
Hand was the driving force behind a 24-hour program called Healing the Heart of Healthcare held at Huntington Hospital in late June. Staff members could relax with snacks, get a massage or pet a friendly pooch. Other activities included writing about their experiences and then ceremoniously dropping them into a flame.
“Maybe people can start the journey to process what we saw and went through,” said Hand, of Northport, who's now clinical professional development educator for the hospital’s medical surgical units. “Maybe we can come back starting to feel fresh and proud and validated — everything we felt at the beginning.”
Steve Lyken, registered nurse
Lyken, 58, said his job working for Catholic Health Home Care created a host of challenges during the start of the pandemic, when he had to dress in personal protective equipment, head to toe, before entering a patient’s home.
Lyken, of Baldwin, said the best thing about providing home care is "the interaction with patients and their families.” But early in the pandemic, he had to ask family members to leave the room as a safety precaution. He added that his stress levels hovered between “moderate to severe."
“They were going through their own stress and I had to adjust in order to care for them,” he said of his patients.
Lyken created his own routine of self care, purchasing exercise equipment that he uses frequently, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and staying in touch with friends.
“I’m doing much better with coping,” Lyken said, adding he now takes breaks between visits to patients.
"You need that time to destress," he said.
Lathika Nair, laboratory manager
Nair, microbiology department manager of Catholic Health’s regional laboratory in Hauppauge, said the demand for test results grew in early 2020 as companies were developing tools to detect the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19.
“Once we did get [the COVID-19 tests], we jumped right in,” said Nair, 54, of Mount Sinai. “We were doing 800 to 1,000 tests a day. There was a lot of working long hours, and we didn’t go home until we knew the next shift could handle the volume. Our lab runs 24 hours, seven days a week.”
Several months into the pandemic, Nair was promoted to manager of the lab, putting her in the sometimes uncomfortable position of overseeing her former colleagues. She found support through the health care system's organizational development team and by taking management courses.
“People are starting to get used to me as a manager” now, she said. “I’m a little bit more relaxed than when I started this job.”
She has found ways to manage the stress, through gardening, exercise and music.
“Coming to work and going home, I listen to music,” she said. “That’s how I destress.”
Caitlin Alexander, respiratory therapist
Alexander saw how quickly the pandemic hit Huntington Hospital in March 2020.
“The first positive patient was somewhere in the middle of March,” Alexander, 33, recalled. “One became two. Two became four. And then it was hundreds.”
As she helped intubate patients, she worried the hospital could run out of ventilators. It was a stress tough to bring home to her husband and toddler son. Soon after the pandemic hit, Alexander, of East Northport, found out she was pregnant with her second child.
“When I got home, I kept thinking about what was going on at the hospital,” she said. “Maybe everything wasn’t going our way, but at least we were trying … I try to get clarity on it, and it almost feels like a dream.”
Now, there are fewer COVID-19 patients who are put on ventilators, but she said seeing the pandemic continue has taken its toll.
“We talk to each other and we try and just vent as much as we can among ourselves,” she said of her close-knit group of colleagues. “I feel now like I can discuss it with my husband more."
Courtney Ciesla, chief physician assistant
When COVID-19 appeared in her emergency room at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, Ciesla, a chief physician assistant, was in her third trimester of pregnancy and terrified. But she kept coming to work.
During her first pregnancy before the pandemic, Ciesla developed fluid in her lungs and other complications. If similar issues arose this time, she worried about the possible impact of COVID-19.
“In my head, if I got COVID, I had myself dead,” said Ciesla, of Massapequa. “But that wasn’t the time to leave my community or my co-workers.”
Ciesla said working in the emergency room has shown her any given day can bring chaos.
“You do get fatigued,” she said. “You try to push along and try to keep work separate from home … we are like a family here. If one person is down, everyone rallies around them to bring them up.”
She and her colleagues try to battle burnout, staff shortages and other work issues with upbeat gatherings in the park, where everyone brings their children. And after more than a year of working and staying close to home, Ciesla and her family traveled to St. Lucia in the Caribbean for her 40th birthday.
Ciesla spends most of her free time with her two children but sometimes takes some "me time" for a massage or a pedicure. She feels less fearful of any future waves of COVID-19.
“This time, I am worried about me and not two people,” she said, referring to her now 2-year-old daughter. “That makes it a little different.”
Danielle Curry, nurse manager
During the first and second waves of COVID-19 that swept through Stony Brook University Hospital, Curry worked hard to support and soothe the “overwhelmed and traumatized” less-experienced nurses.
“It was very intense,” recalled Curry, 50, of Bay Shore, whose medical surge unit transitioned several times to a COVID unit. “There were a lot of deaths, and we were dealing with a lot of sick people. … As a leader, you really need to walk the walk and talk the talk, so I put on my scrubs every day and helped the patients.”
But the challenges remain, as the newer COVID patients sometimes want to debate hospital staff about treatment options.
“The work-life balance is a struggle,” Curry said. “I try to go for walks, do some meditation and practice mindfulness and gratitude … be thankful that I have my family, my health and a great job."