The pandemic has been a trial for every industry, but particularly for healthcare. HR professionals from the sector open up about what it has been like on the frontline.
For some industries, the challenges of the pandemic have been the same from business to business. Restaurants and bars, for example, all had to figure out how to stay afloat with limited or no sit-down crowds. But for healthcare, the challenges have been remarkably varied.
For example, even as public hospitals rapidly pivoted to prepare for expected infections in late March, on the 25th a federal order disrupted private hospitals by suspending all non-urgent elective surgery.
For Michelle McCray, the HR and WHS coordinator for St Vincents Hospital Lismore NSW, this was earth-shattering.
“We went from nearly 100 per cent down to around about 20 per cent overnight,” she says. The campus also has a 130-bed aged care service with about 120 staff. The vulnerability of the residents was added pressure in an already chaotic time.
“When COVID first hit, I felt like having meltdowns there, right at the start. But you have no time to wallow in the panic. You have employees coming to you and you’re trying to calm them and reassure them. So, along with rapidly changing operational matters and advice to the executive, that became the focus,” says McCray.
The early days
For Victorian-based Clare Murphy FCPHR, the HR executive director at community health service provider EACH, the adjustment to COVID-19 was a huge task that hasn’t really ended. Her 30-person HR team oversees about 1,300 workers across 50 sites in four different states.
“We had to work through every face-to-face program and work out how we could deliver it. If you can’t do telehealth, how else can we do it? Because all of our programs involve working with vulnerable people and people who need support. So you can’t just go, ‘Oh well, we just won’t do that for six months’.
“All of our programs involve working with vulnerable people and people who need support. So you can’t just go, ‘Oh well, we just won’t do that for six months.’
“In some programs demand was decreasing because of the nature of the work, and others were increasing – we do a lot of work in family violence, and alcohol and drug counselling. We are also operating direct responses to the pandemic such as screening clinics and rapid response testing programs.”
A very different organisation with pre-existing challenges, also based in Victoria, is Fairway Bayside Aged Care. It has just over 100 employees for the 65-bed unit, with Michelle Taylor CPHR, senior HR specialist, making the entire HR team.
Hired in December 2019, she came into a situation where payroll took on some HR responsibilities, but more complex tasks were outsourced. So her early days were spent doing the hard task of fundamental transformation – she reviewed multiple employee relations issues including an enterprise agreement pending vote and approval from the commission, worked through payroll and time and attendance systems discrepancies, and updated the employee handbook and induction processes. Then the pandemic hit.
“It became quite frightening. When the news about Newmarch House came through the media and we saw such a high number of infections and deaths, our priority was keeping our residents safe. And when you work in such a small facility – I’m seeing all those people on a daily basis in the halls and saying ‘hello’ – you get attached to them and you want them to be well.”
She also discovered an issue that was familiar to HR professionals everywhere, but particularly those working in healthcare – workers who can’t work.
“We’ve got a lot of people who were pulled out because they have underlying issues, such as autoimmune illnesses. Some people have opted out of work altogether because they’re not comfortable working in the aged care environment,” says Taylor.
“Some people’s partners don’t want them to work. They don’t want the risk.”
On the edge of burnout
The huge demands being placed on healthcare workers, from long hours to working with highly vulnerable people, undergirds many of the other challenges HR had to deal with.
In many organisations, limited funding, limited staff and crisis-levels of demand is a mixture that causes burnout for which there is no comprehensive answer. That being said, HR professionals are doing their utmost.
The number one priority has been trying to get people to take annual leave where possible. Obviously, this is difficult for a workforce that is routinely required to pull double-shifts and work over the weekend. Not to mention the fact that nobody can go anywhere.
“We had a six-month period where no one was taking annual leave, because they said, what’s the point? We’re just going to be sitting at home anyway,” says Murphy. “We’ve tried to promote, through our communications and wellbeing resources, the need to take breaks, even if you can’t go anywhere.”
Murphy says the EACH executive team has been trying to lead by example, but even as she explains it, she acknowledges she’s only taken small amounts of leave herself, which highlights the essential difficulty.
“It’s a double-edged sword. We’re telling people to take a break for their wellbeing, but we’re far too busy for them to actually take a break,” says Murphy.
Using engagement surveys to track sentiment and overall wellbeing has been a universal theme. EAPs have seen extensive use. Staff communications don’t just keep people updated with the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, they offer tools and resources to help people cope. This has been particularly important because you don’t often get to see the night shift staff if you’re in HR, not unless you get in early to see them clock off.
It’s not lost on HR that their own wellbeing is at risk – they’re familiar with the symptoms of burnout more than most. Taylor has given many staff and Fairway’s CEO her personal number, and sometimes has talked them through issues late in the night.
“I prioritise those little things because I know that person. If that helps them through their day, then I’ll do it. Sometimes they just want to talk,” she says. “As HR professionals we need to put the light on and shine most days and not let our own fatigue show. But it can get really exhausting.”
Murphy had the same experience. “You pass the adrenaline rush – that surge capacity where you can just keep doing more and more is disappearing. You can really see it in people,” she says.
“The burnout is real. And there is no end in sight,” Taylor adds.
Staffing and recruitment
More prosaic workforce issues – such as having enough staff, making sure they’re adequately trained and equipped and staying on top of changing government requirements – have been extremely complex to manage amid the pandemic.
While some employees stopped work due to health concerns, casuals were let go due to either funding (JobKeeper doesn’t cover those who’ve worked less than 12 months) or health guidelines (in aged care, workers had to pick a single residence to work for). The solution, recruitment, is an added complexity.
“We’re doing a recruitment piece right now,” says Taylor. “It’s a challenge because we need to say you can only work at our facility. And a lot of the people who work in healthcare already have a job, and that’s before we think about organisational fit – you still want to get the right people.”
It’s a jobseeker’s market right now, so it’s tougher to attract candidates. There have also been reports of bad behaviour from recruitment agencies.
“I’ve caught out a couple of them who were cold calling our staff and trying to get them onto their books. I called them out once because they rang us and tried to offer us one of our own staff members,” says McCray.
Even had she wanted to, McCray would have struggled to hire through agencies because St Vincents would have to pay an agency’s extra fees and the money just isn’t there right now. Murphy has also found recruitment to be very difficult.
“A lot of it happens very quickly, and it’s like it needs to be done yesterday,” she says. “So, we sit down and go, ‘We need a rapid response team of 60 people. These are the kinds of skills we need’. Then we might put out an internal call to say, ‘Is anyone interested and available? But also, do you know anyone in your network?’. It’s about how fast we can get people with the right skills, get them onboarded, get them in, and then get them out working,” she says.
Aged care faces the extra problem that has been a feature of the aged care royal commission. The jobs on offer are low pay for very trying work, which leads to high turnover. The federal government’s retention grant for aged care provided organisations with a way to get their workers a bonus, but in residential care it didn’t extend to kitchen and cleaning staff.
“Our aged care staff are some of the hardest workers on our campus and they’re some of the lowest paid,” says McCray.
“I’m also an aged care nurse. You get into aged care for the passion. You don’t get into it for the money. I personally believe the government needs to have a really long, hard look at funding our aged care system appropriately,” she adds.
Healthcare work is often done by passionate people, but the pandemic has had a way of turning that feeling against itself.
“Workers are walking around with facemasks and shields,” says Taylor. “Can you imagine showering an elderly person with that on? You lose a bit of that contact because you’re not face-to-face.”
The pandemic has limited the ability of patients and residents to have contact with their families. Staff are trying to facilitate what they can through video conferencing and telephone check-ups, but there’s sometimes still backlash from upset family members. That stress of not being appreciated can get to some workers.
It’s not just families that scrutinise the workers. Victorian workers were stressed about getting worker permits. And, while crucial, the check-ups to make sure healthcare workplaces are compliant with government standards are yet another stress.
Taylor says the rates of infection in aged care facilities in Victoria means multiple bodies have come through to assess their PPE and safety processes, including the army.
This pandemic has been described as a once in a generation experience. A global catastrophe that has stretched healthcare to its limit and, in some cases, broken it.
The comments from the HR professionals above barely scratch the surface of what they, their colleagues and their organisations have faced – to say nothing of the countless other professionals who were not interviewed.
Despite what was an overwhelming amount of hardship, what really shines through when talking to these practitioners is a keen sense of the solidarity they feel.
“Our healthcare system has really proven its worth over these last few months,” says McCray. “We are so proud of our hospital and aged care services, and the way our staff have been resilient to what has been an extremely challenging time. And they still come to work every day with smiles on their faces.”