Nurses' week in 2021 looks much different than last year. In May 2020, nurses from the frontline to the C-suite were stepping up to care for patients amid a new pandemic: Nursing leaders were planning for Covid-19 surges, bedside nurses were placed on the forefront of the pandemic, and organizations were struggling to source enough PPE for staff.
A year later, things are starting to look different. Vaccination distribution is well underway, and Covid-19 surges are starting to subside in most parts of the country. But much about our health systems have changed. Staff are burned out and traumatized, strategic priorities have shifted, and leaders have become incredibly innovative to meet new demands. In this moment, nursing leaders have an opportunity to reflect on what changed in the last year and answer the question: What's next?
To shed some light on the situation, Katherine Virkstis and Matt Cornner, nursing and leadership experts at Advisory Board, shared four key insights that nursing leaders should use to reconsider their leadership strategy going forward.
1. Prioritize your own healing to better lead others
Across the past year, many leaders have held on tight, keeping emotions and reactions in check in order to address the crisis at hand. But suppressing emotions may cause leaders to burn out and disengage, hindering their effectiveness as leaders in the long-term.
To successfully lead staff and helm organizations, nursing leaders must metaphorically put their own oxygen mask before assisting those around them. Caring for yourself is a prerequisite to effective leadership.
There are a variety of tactics at leaders' disposal to begin recovering from the last year. Keep in mind that recovery will look different for everybody, and the best tactics are the ones that work for you. Consider allocating meeting time to create a forum to discuss emotions with a close group of peers or tap into your personal network of friends and family. In addition, prioritize taking small breaks when you're able, use available emotional support resources, and care for yourself.
An added benefit is the widespread impact executive role modeling can have. Personal recognition of trauma and healing by leaders empowers staff to seek out support to address their own mental and physical well-being.
Learn more about leader resiliency here.
2. Create an environment to (re)build trust
During the pandemic, health systems did what they had to in the moment to care for patients—but nurses experienced the downstream negative effects. RNs may have been asked to take on new roles with little notice, were abruptly deployed in new care settings, and in some cases faced furloughs or pay cuts.
As we begin to emerge from the crisis, leaders must rebuild the trust of their staff and support workforce recovery. Though daily operations may begin to return to normal, there is still much uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead. Your instinct may be to put on a brave face and remain strong in a time of confusion and emotional and physical exhaustion. But that could be a big mistake.
Being open, honest, and vulnerable with staff is key to rebuilding their trust. As Brené Brown, a professor of vulnerability and shame at the University of Houston, says, "vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences." By showing your vulnerability as a leader you are allowing others to be vulnerable as well and saying it's okay to not be okay. It provides space for staff to feel, to grieve together, and to increase their trust in each other and in leadership.
Next, ensure your staff are—and feel—safe at work. This includes ensuring they always have proper PPE but extends to protection from violence and abuse in the workplace from staff, patients, or family members. With this foundation in place, show staff you prioritize their wellbeing by creating a robust portfolio of recovery initiatives to help them heal physically and emotionally.
3. Infuse the nursing perspective into organization strategy
A crisis can catalyze strong, decisive leadership and swift action. During the pandemic, nurse leaders stood up new models of care, built greater flexibility into staffing decisions, leveraged technology to improve communication and provide remote patient care, and more.
Now, as health systems begin to emerge from crisis, leaders will need to redefine strategy and determine how those leadership decisions could change their organizational fabric. Progressive nurse executives are recognizing opportunities to incorporate many of these innovative changes longer term, and embrace a more adaptive mindset as they help shape their organizations' future strategy.
4. Make adaptive leadership your new normal
During Covid-19, health systems adapted to their environment by responding to evolving needs swiftly and in the moment. This type of contextual and adaptive leadership should not subside when we exit crisis mode. As a leader, don't wait for crisis to challenge the status quo or solve problems. Use your leadership position to mobilize staff around purpose to give rise to continued creativity and innovation.