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April 20, 2020

How to talk with staff about PPE shortages

Daily Briefing

    Nearly every health system across the country is facing significant PPE shortages, requiring many clinicians to re-use masks for days at a time and rely on DIY, or "MacGyverd," alternatives for protection.

    How are hospitals handling a PPE shortage?

    For clinical leaders, the Covid-19 crisis has placed two important priorities—patient care and employee health and safety—in tension with one another like never before. Navigating that tension is an extraordinary challenge that will continue to increase as patient volumes rise, supplies dwindle, and staff fall ill

    Although you may not be able to directly inflect procurement, how you communicate PPE shortages or fluctuating expectations to staff is critical to sustaining their resilience in both the immediate and long term. 

    Below, we outline two principles to keep in mind as you communicate with staff about continued PPE shortages.

    1. Be timely and transparent—and don't forget 'the why'

    When it comes to PPE supply, what was true on Monday won't necessarily be true on Tuesday. Because of the rapid pace of change, communicate frequently, using all available channels to keep frontline staff up-to-date on the state of play concerning PPE. That being said, recognize that being a transparent leader is not dependent upon having complete and perfect information. It's okay not to have all of the answers, but be up-front about what you don't know and share the steps you're taking to learn more.

    Where you can, give staff insight into the "why" behind leadership decisions. This can be challenging to communicate: decisions around PPE use are difficult ones and invariably place patient health and safety first. However, you want to make clear that staff health and safety is also an important priority and explain how decisions reflect leadership's ambition to balance those priorities.   

    2. In one-on-one conversations with staff, be prepared

    Regardless of how thorough, timely, and transparent you are in your communication, team members who are frustrated, angry, and scared are still likely to engage you directly, and in some cases, in a confrontational manner. 

    If this happens, start with your own emotions: when confronted by an angry, frustrated or fearful team member, it's natural to feel attacked and go into fight or flight mode. In order to care for that team member, you need to manage your own emotions first. One means of doing so is the "label, listen, learn" approach:

    In the moment, notice your outsized emotions and be able to label them: angry, afraid, sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated. This exercise takes us out of our "reptilian brain" and allows us to engage our rational brain. 

    Pausing to label your emotions gives you the chance to center yourself so that you can be present and listen to the team member in front of you. Give them space to share their own feelings and concerns.  Be attentive, be caring, be curious. 

    In addition to hearing them out, you have the opportunity to learn from what they're saying. For instance, you might learn that your communication needs to be more comprehensive, frequent, broad-based—or that there are gaps in your intended PPE coverage. The net result is that you are able to both identify any blind spots in your communication or PPE strategy and leave your team member feeling genuinely cared for.

    Both PPE shortages and the tensions they present are likely to continue well beyond the Covid-19 surge.  When in doubt, over-communicate and continue to empathize with the range of emotions and responses you may encounter from your clinical teams over the weeks ahead.

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