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Refilling the Cup

By Chris Blake • Photos by Jessica McCafferty

Assistant Nurse Manager Emily Benway sorted through a box of markers, selected just the right one and as she studiously began to color a small flower petal she explained how the Connections work underway at the University of Vermont Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH) has been beneficial to her personally and as a leader. “It has helped me get to know people I work with in a different way; helped break down some silos.”

The markers and coloring page are part of an innovative initiative at both the Plattsburgh hospital and its partner in UVMH Network, Alice Hyde Medical Center. Benway said she and her colleagues will often, after a meeting or during a lunch break, take a few minutes to work on the page. “I do my best thinking when I’m doing something with my hands; it calms my brain. And we chat while we do it, so I’ve learned new things about people I work with every day,” she offered.

Alice Hyde Medical Center and CVPH President Michelle LeBeau said the Connections initiative was launched to help staff in both facilities move forward in a post COVID world and in the midst of tremendous change. “It has been an extremely tough few years for healthcare workers. Here and at home, these folks have been under enormous stress and have been asked to think and work differently. That takes its toll and the risk of burnout increases,” LeBeau said.

Director of Connections and Wellbeing Rheta Recore offered that the pandemic was a very isolating time for everyone. “While it’s true that isolation was an effective tool in slowing the virus’ spread, it had a significant impact on our personal and professional wellbeing,” she said. She pointed out that even before the pandemic, burnout among healthcare workers was on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), in 2022 19% of surveyed healthcare workers reported feeling burned out up from 11.6% in 2018.

The added stressors of today’s healthcare landscape including an aging population, crowded Emergency Departments and chronic workforce shortages have contributed to an even higher rate of burnout among healthcare providers all across the country.

Benway recalled returning to work in February 2021 after giving birth to her son. “My first day back, my entire assignment included COVID patients. It was a really challenging time,” she said. And, after her promotion to Assistant Nurse Manager of the R7 nursing unit, Benway helped transition its mission from medical/surgical to caring for non-acute patients. “It was a huge adjustment for all of us and a big change in how we practice.”

“These are tremendously gifted people who are truly dedicated to caring for their communities. But you can’t pour from an empty cup and our goal is to help our leaders refill their cup in a way that is meaningful to them and then to model that for their teams,” LeBeau said. In 2022, she pulled a team together to explore ways to support the staff at AHMC and CVPH that was grappling with many of the same issues as their colleagues across the country.

Recore, Retention and Support Director Zaidee Laughlin, AHMC Associate Vice President of People Emily Campbell, Business Operation Director Kassandra Beauregard and Wouter Rietsema, MD were charged with a single mission: How can we help? “At its core, healthcare is about teamwork. We need each other to do our work and to care for our community. We also need each other for the support and comradery we offer one another,” Recore said. Rebuilding those connections is an important first step in reducing burnout.

In Plattsburgh, the group started with basic ice breakers and team building exercises at the start of each monthly leadership meeting. Monthly lunchtime Connection activities were added and two leadership retreats have provided opportunities for leaders to share their experiences and rediscover their passion and purpose.

At Alice Hyde, Connections work focuses on supporting leaders in a manner that is meaningful to them. “As a smaller facility, we are fortunate to be more familiar with our co-workers, but we often see just one side of them. Our emphasis has been on seeing each employee as a whole person. Our mission as a healthcare provider in this community is clear, but we are asking ‘What do you need to help support that mission?’”

Campbell said there have been several “really dynamic” leadership sessions with engaging discussions related to the enormous changes at Alice Hyde and all that the team has accomplished together. “We see this work more as a mission driven journey and not a means to end,” she added.

Recore admitted that the concepts around Connections and related activities were not immediately well received by all at CVPH, including Benway. “At my first Lunchtime Connection, they were doing a rock, paper, scissor game and I thought, ‘What is this and why are we doing it?’ but now, I’m an enthusiastic participant. These activities allow us to reveal pieces of ourselves, to build stronger teams, be better leaders, better care givers. I don’t think any of us realized just how isolated we were until we were on the other side of the pandemic.”

Benway said she’s learned through Connections how important it is to make time to slow down and to prioritize self-care. “We all have 500 tasks to do every day, but by taking just a few minutes to relax and refocus, we can reenergize ourselves.”

Chris Blake is the Program Manager, Media Relations and Communications at UVMC CVPH/AHMC.

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