Ep 5 | Decoding Future Leadership | Mental Health and Resilient Systems | Fisher Leadership

Ep 5 | Decoding Future Leadership | Mental Health and Resilient Systems

EPISODE 5: Mental Health and Resilient Systems

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We now live in a world where talent is rarer than capital. Decoding Future Leadership is an audio-visual podcast breaking open the capabilities, technologies, growth strategies and mental fitness required to lead our future working world. This week, Therese Joyce, Manager of the Mental Health and Wellbeing practice at Fisher Leadership, interviews Professor Marie Bismark, Physician, Health Lawyer and Author.

Professor Marie Bismark is a public health physician and health lawyer. Her research focuses on the role of clinical governance, regulation, and patient complaints in improving the quality and safety of healthcare. Marie heads a research team at the University of Melbourne and works as a doctor at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.  Her newly released book shares firsthand stories of the effect of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of healthcare workers.

‘Experiences of Health Workers in the COVID-19 Pandemic’ shares the stories of frontline health workers-told in their own words-during the second wave of COVID-19 in Australia. The book records the complex emotions healthcare workers experienced as the pandemic unfolded, and the challenges they faced in caring for themselves, their families, and their patients. The book draws on over 9,000 responses to a survey examining the psychological, occupational, and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline health workers.

Professor Marie Bismark has been a key part of the team undertaking the largest study of healthcare workers during the pandemic in the world. Therese Joyce asks her what she has learned in the process, and what we can learn from the pandemic to strengthen our health system, and more broadly support our other organisational systems to be more resilient for future crises.

Marie speaks with empathy about the power of acknowledging shared experience. Whether these stories are centred on hardship or hope, the impact of collating individual experiences into a collective narrative is an important social undertaking. Even more so with the evidence that these experiences were commonly felt across an incredibly diverse value chain of people and professions that make up the health care system. From hospital cleaners through to intensive care specialists, ER nurses to doctors and reception staff, the study shows the pandemic to have affected everyone’s mental health, in similar and monumental ways.

The pertinent question? As a society, what do we do with this information to create a more resilient system for the future?

As a researcher, Marie says we need a combination of the data and the stories to influence systems change. Statistics show that significant portion of the healthcare workforce was suffering throughout the pandemic.  But it’s the human stories overlaid by the data that really bring the truth home.

Marie points out, “We have seen people clapping healthcare workers in the street, however is this same level of appreciation reflected in the systems and processes we have set up for health care workers?”.

Marie reflects on the ways people expressed their concern for healthcare professionals during the pandemic. Often, exhausted, understaffed workers, lacking the PPE to do their job safely, were given sincere but inappropriate offers of help. “Instead of a lunchtime yoga class suggestion, it is imperative that we look at the system.” Marie says.  The sentiment among workers was clear.

“We don’t want another wellbeing app, we want a safe workplace.”

Marie recounts a piece of advice she heard often during 2020. “People would say, ‘make sure you’re taking care of yourself’, as though there is a choice when you’re working around the clock”. Marie says, only two options exist if a health worker wants to take leave: they force their colleagues to shoulder the burden of their leave; or patients in need miss out. These personal reflections show up the gaps in the system in a way that statistics cannot. Our learnings need to be actioned in practical, scalable ways moving forward.

Reflecting on the report, Marie says that what stood out from the stories of health workers was that none of the issues that appeared during the pandemic are new. The stories simply illustrate a system that has been inadequate for a long time. Marie points out that understaffing, underpaid work, junior doctor burnout, and a lack of resources such as proper PPE are all issues that have made headlines in past decades where healthcare workers have rallied for change. The pandemic simply demanded additional resilience of a system that was already close to breaking point. What saved us during the pandemic was not the system, it was the choices of healthcare workers to continue on even though the system had let them down.

It is counter intuitive that people in the health care sector are the last to do health-seeking for themselves. There exists a culture of carrying on and caring for others as the priority. Organisations that were able to listen to what the healthcare workers needed and provide systemic solutions were much more successful, says Marie. However, she also cautions that there is no one solution for all. “Workers’ needs are so different. Operating systems give insight into how local solutions and individual offerings can really make a difference.”

Marie says the more nuanced the story, the more effective the system we can put in place. She uses the painful topic of visitor restrictions during Covid. The stress caused from restricted access for families of ill patients ran deep, even resulting in increased levels of violence toward healthcare workers. Marie points to the need for varying responses as well as educational and expectational stakeholder management in these situations needing to be in place. A similar need for nuanced decision-making happened when community goodwill present in 2020 shifted to anti vaccination protests during 2021. Health care workers were then seen by protestors as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

While there were systemic wins that came from the pandemic such as Telehealth, international peer support amongst the health sector, and the use of social media as a way to get data in real time, Marie says the personal stories, shared on mass, need to be heard and actioned in some way.

Therese finishes the interview with an afterthought, much like the final question on the survey that created the momentum for Marie’s book. ‘Is there anything else you would like to comment on?’

When Marie and the research team included this oft-ignored question they were met with an astounding 250,000 words from people across the sector. The themes that came through in these free comments included a profound sense or gratitude, a sense of purpose and contribution, the acknowledgement of human connection at a time when human connection was highly restricted. Marie says the thing that has touched her the most during her research is the power of informal leadership, and the ability for decision-making to be empowered by stories as well as by systems.

The PeopleStrong Talent Operating System is an AI-powered integrated talent management platform that helps organisations recruit, mentor, retain, and engage their future-ready workforce. It takes disparate and distributed data points illustrating the lifecycle of an individual and offers insights for career decisions moving forward.

Decoding Future Leadership is a collaboration between PeopleStrong, APAC’s Customer’s Choice for HR Tech, and Fisher Leadership. Each episode addresses the challenges of a hybrid workforce, with a blend of human capability and HR technology solutions. Reach out to learn more: djenkinson@fisherleadership.com