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Leadership Assembly takeaways: Speaking up makes a difference

Nov. 4, 2021, 9:16 AM

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, spoke of the importance of VUMC’s workforce in this week’s Leadership Assembly video presentation.
Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, spoke of the importance of VUMC’s workforce in this week’s Leadership Assembly video presentation. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Holly Fletcher

The reality of nearly two years of living and working amid the pandemic is taking a toll on everyone — and particularly people working in health care.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s long-standing culture of caring has enabled remarkable leadership in meeting the region’s persistent pandemic challenges.

Yet, the emotional and physical stress are impacting the well-being and spirit of the workforce. So, it’s a chief priority of the institution to redouble efforts to provide support, leaders said during streaming of the November 2021 Leadership Assembly.

In the midst of these challenges, the service demands on VUMC’s numerous locations across the region are only growing. The importance of supporting the workforce is highlighted in this quarter’s Leadership Assembly theme, “Speaking Up, Lifting Up,” which is focused on strategies to amplify well-being, said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of VUMC and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“We all understand that while ‘speaking up’ sounds good, in the workplace it can be very hard for us to do.

“Yet empowering ourselves and everyone working at VUMC to ‘speak up’ is fundamental to so many areas that are central to not only our work, but to our own well-being,” said Balser.

Nurturing an environment that encourages difficult conversations about uncomfortable issues like violence and sexual harassment is critical to continuing VUMC’s growth, retention, safety and innovation goals, Balser said. Finding ways to ease operational bottlenecks and frustrations will also help with burnout and work-related mental health.

 

Committed to you

C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, thanked VUMC workers for their commitment and unrelenting effort during the pandemic.
C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, thanked VUMC workers for their commitment and unrelenting effort during the pandemic. (photo by Erin O. Smith

The high-quality, continuous care provided amid the surges of COVID-19 is testament to the agility and strength of VUMC as well as the commitment of the workforce, particularly the front-line clinical staff. The many positive outcomes over the past year, both for patients and for the enterprise, are attributable to unrelenting effort, said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer. VUMC remains on track with its quality and service goals, as well as its financial performance.

“Because of you, our organization does make a huge difference and has made tremendous contributions over the years, especially during these past 20 months. Your expertise and commitment have been on display for all to see in terms of caring for patients and adapting to really tough challenges,” said Pinson.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has led people to re-examine their lives, and as with all health care systems, those trends are impacting VUMC’s workforce, Pinson said. Reinforcing a culture of well-being is a critical priority now and in the coming months.

In addition to the significant investments we have made to our compensation programs, and to support people in managing challenges at home and at work, VUMC is raising the previously announced merit pay increase from 2.75% to 3% effective Jan. 1.

“This is the largest across the board annual increase VUMC has given in over a decade. It’s a sign we value our people, and it’s a sign of our economic health — thanks to years of hard work by so many of you. None of us know how long this pandemic will last, and how long it will cause disruptions in the economy. The Medical Center is committed to you, no matter how long the pandemic lasts,” said Balser.

 

Your voice matters

Making changes to how feedback, suggestions, criticism and praise are given — and received — is a priority at all leadership levels. Balser emphasized the importance of this not only in supporting workforce satisfaction, but for ensuring the highest level of safety when caring for patients.

“A key aspect is creating an atmosphere where people feel supported to speak up. Creating that kind of atmosphere is hard work. As leaders, it’s important that each of us own the responsibility for building and sustaining that kind of culture. How often do we remember to ask team members to generate ideas? Or even poke holes in our ideas? And even more importantly, how do we respond when they do,” said Balser.

 

Caring for One Another

  • No tolerance for physical, verbal harm

Workplace violence from patients and families is on the rise nationally — including at VUMC. Staff have been accosted by yelling, verbal and physical threats at walk-in clinics, ambulatory sites and inpatient areas.

The Violence in Workplace Committee has worked to develop a number of communications that will be visible reminders VUMC is concerned about violence and will act promptly, said Balser.

To fully capture the extent and prevalence of violence against staff, it’s critical that all types of abuse — physical and verbal — are reported, whether they are extreme or not, he said.

Better reporting of these events will help identify patterns that allow for more preventive measures, and importantly, to give prompt support to employees experiencing violence.

“It is vital that all employees know that we are absolutely committed to acting against violence. Historically, some in health care have felt that tolerating violence might be just part of the job. It is not. To move the needle on this, we need to do even more than communicate with patients and families about our expectations. We need all members of our workforce to report verbal or physical abuse when it occurs, and not just the extremes,” said Balser.

  • SHARE Center

The two-year-old SHARE Center, which stands for Sexual Harassment: Access, Response and Education, is an internal resource devoted to supporting and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s another avenue to shore up support for colleagues who are experiencing that form of workplace violence.

Sexual harassment, nationwide and at VUMC, often goes unreported for fear of retaliation or embarrassment. The SHARE Center resources are confidential and provide personalized support for victims. It does not require the victim to reveal the identity of the harasser.

Increasing awareness of the SHARE Center is another way for leaders to support all of their employees, while amplifying VUMC’s commitment to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace.

“With the added stress that the pandemic has caused, it is vital that our people know we are absolutely committed to supporting them. Health care workers need care too — we must all prioritize caring for one another in these important ways,” said Balser.

  • Keeping patients secure

Advancing the culture of openness will improve patient care and safety, as well as regulatory compliance, said Pinson. Results from the 2019 culture survey showed some employees are reluctant to speak up about unprofessional behavior.

“Most of us understand we are obligated to report concerns, but fewer of us feel it is easy to speak up. In fact, we count on everyone to speak up when there is a compliance concern, so we want people to feel more comfortable and more empowered to speak up. If you see something, say something. Compliance matters,” said Pinson.

 

You got your jabs

VUMC is at 99% compliance, including approved exemptions, with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, a stunning success for the institution and the region. Across the state, the vaccination rate is roughly 48%.

“One of our jobs in this pandemic has been to be a role model and speak up in the community. This vaccination campaign has been our way of looking after our workforce and looking after our community. Thank you for your outstanding leadership,” said Pinson.

Now, it’s time to roll up the sleeves for the flu shots. The deadline is Dec. 1 — but don’t delay!

To view the November 2021 Leadership Assembly please go here.

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