Case management leaders can help their employees maintain their health and productivity during crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, by following organizational policies.

One technique is to help employees change their perspective about what is happening to them and around them.

“We need to change our point of view and recognize that threats will be emerging, and this [crisis] is here to stay, one way or another,” says J. Gerald Suarez, PhD, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design, and fellow for the Center for Leadership, Innovation, and Change at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

These are examples of how case management leaders can help employees maintain a healthy and positive outlook:

• Lead by example. An important way to show staff support and create value in an organization is for managers and supervisors to lead by example.

“It sounds basic, but it is so powerful when senior leaders, who also are clinicians, join the frontlines and provide the care with their employees,” Suarez says. “It accomplishes two things: One, it sends the signal that we are really a team, and two, it allows leaders to connect firsthand with the challenges of frontline employees. If you are the CEO of the hospital, and you are also a physician, and you come to the frontlines and see that you don’t have the equipment you need, that’s different than getting a communication saying, ‘We need more equipment.’”

It makes a much bigger impression on both the leader and the staff when the leader joins in. “Employees see there is no rank here, and this virus is not responding to organizational levels,” he adds.

• Value staff. Organizations often establish principles and goals that say they value their employees, but their actions might not reflect those principles. One example Suarez saw concerned an organization making a personnel change that was not about performance.

“The executive looked at the organizational values, and he said to the board, ‘It says here that we forgive mistakes. It says here we value our people. It says here that people are our most important asset, and we give them the opportunity to learn. We either change our values, or we help that person,’” Suarez recalls. “That’s a very powerful way to behave according to what you say is important.”

• Encourage breaks. Organizations should give case managers and other staff encouragement to take breaks for mindfulness, practicing relaxation techniques, and resting between busy work activities.

“This concept is no different than driving across the country and not stopping at a rest stop,” Suarez says. “You have to pull over and can’t keep driving because, eventually, you’ll have an accident.”

Case management leaders need to tell their employees to slow down and take a break. They can even provide information or resources for learning yoga or meditation, he suggests.

• Reassure in an age of uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an age of uncertainty for everyone, but especially for healthcare employees. There is no known finish line, although everyone assumes there is one.

“We are asked to keep running and run fast, and there is no point where we cross that finish line,” Suarez says. “I think the new reality is we’re beginning to see that we are in an arena where the concept of closure will be totally different. It’s almost a game that has no end.”

Healthcare workers can tell themselves everything will return to normal once a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 virus is developed, but that is not necessarily true. “Even if we get a vaccine, there may be many people that say, ‘I don’t want to take it,’ and then the vaccine will not make the virus go away,” Suarez says.

“I think the world has shifted — just like it did after 9/11, when the security protocols were changed forever at airports,” he continues. “Hospitals will be changed forever, and I think we need to reinvent ourselves and create organizations that will recognize that this is an ongoing threat to people.”

There will continue to be new viruses and new mutations that pose a threat. Leaders should stop any talk about COVID-19 going away or having work return to normal. “It’s not healthy for organizations to create that false sense of a transition to normalcy,” Suarez says. “We should not compare this experience to the way it was.”

Instead, everyone should change their perspective, recognize threats will continue to emerge, and the current pandemic will slow down, hopefully, and become more controlled, he adds. The goal is to reassure staff that everyone will adjust, adapt, and get through this crisis, becoming more resilient as a result.

• Put on your own oxygen mask first. “Sometimes, leaders forget to take care of themselves, and it’s important for them to do so,” Suarez says. “They’re giving hope and energy and supporting everybody, and it gets very lonely at the top. They feel the same vulnerability and decision-making. It’s important for them to also reflect, slow down, and take advantage of a safe space.”

Leaders should be reminded they are not invulnerable to the pressures of the crisis. “They need to find that moment for themselves to recharge,” he says. “If they’re not doing well, nobody will do well.”

It is like the oft-used metaphor of air flight instructions that explain if the cabin loses pressure, passengers should put on their own masks before helping others with their masks, Suarez explains.

“Leaders need to wear their mask first and then support the people they lead,” he adds. “Leaders should embrace the same type of recommendations they are supporting their people with.”