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Leading and Learning through COVID-19 - A Conversation with Healthcare Leader Susanne Kish

April 26, 2023

This week on the Caring Support Podcast, we talk with Healthcare Leader, Change Management & Efficiency Expert, Susanne Kish about her experience during the pandemic, how she led her team through the pandemic and the valuable lessons that she learned and wants to share with everyone in the hopes that we can be better prepared in the future.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm someone that has a passion for what I do in health care. I enjoy teaching and looking at efficiencies and improvement, if there's a way to make it improve, let's do it. I enjoy looking at root causes and I'm I was fortunate to be a part of the COVID pandemic, and that was history in the making.

What kept you motivated during the pandemic?

There are two things that come to mind when I think about it, and that is that we're answering the call. The team that I worked with, we really were answering a call for the community, for a hospital, for the province, and that was the one thing I thought of. To be honest, I kind of thought I am here in this role to help and support people.

What was it like being a COVID-testing leader during the pandemic?

I finished a mat leave at one of the hospitals and I was asked to come in and take over operations of the COVID clinic in Waterloo and I was happy to do so. After I thought, what am I getting myself into and yet I'm excited because I love challenges and mental stimulation and problem-solving. So, I said yes, and then I came home and shared this with my family and they're like, What? So that was kind of funny, but once I got in there and learned about the teams and made the correct fixes in there it all happened so fast. It was a great team of people. We built a wonderful team.

Everything from housekeeping, security, nursing, working with the physicians from ED, it was amazing and we did a lot of work with external stakeholders like our provincial, regional teams from Ontario Health, the COVID team of the region that we were in and worked with my director. It was very interesting, challenging. It was a smooth flow in no time, and we got lots of compliments. One of our patients made us a beautiful wooden board because we saw a lot of return customers. I would say we had the long-term care people coming in, pediatrics, children with their stuffies. The COVID test had a bit of a reputation with it, that it wasn't the easiest thing to do.

Can you shed light on the cause or causes of why healthcare workers experience burnout so intense during the pandemic that caused them to quit or change careers?

I want you to think about it: here we are, we're in spring, we're wearing just a sweater and a top outside, but they were wearing scrubs and then they had the isolation gear, the isolation gown, shield, doubled masked and gloves. You were totally covered for hours, trying to get your exams done, your tests done before lunch. That was a lot and then on top of it, there were a lot of questions of when is this going to end, what's the next step? Because one of the things we had in the COVID clinic from our regional partners was a lot of changes and guidelines. We provided those guidelines for our COVID people that came in for testing. We had to make sure that we were right on top of that, it was a constant change in there. You hear about people passing away and the long-term care home people that we would see coming to visit their loved ones and staffers that were sick.

The whole world was in an upheaval, and we were going to work, but other people were staying home and either doing it remotely or maybe not even working. All that plays on you and then you've got your home part: do you have a family member in long-term care, or is someone able to stay home and not get paid if they must stay with their child? Can they travel to see a parent?  There was a lot of stress. As a health care professional, whether it's a nurse or tech or physician and so on, you're there to serve, you are there to help and many times, even before COVID, as a health care professional, you want to keep working and do your job. If someone was sick, you might pick up an extra shift or something. Then you're working extra on top of everything, and I think that in general is what led to the burnout and the feeling of I can’t make it another day.

When you started hearing other people talking about burnout at work, what was your response?

I remember one incident where I heard one nurse say, I feel like I'm getting burned out. It was my job to support these people. I brought that individual in and I said, So how are you feeling? We talked about it a little bit. If we as a manager, supporting our teams and staff and hear something like this, we need to do something because it shows that we care and we all should care about our staff.

If they're sick and going to need time off, it's better we look at it when we first hear about it rather than letting it go and having them continue to work because they have to come in. I ended up speaking with the individual and they ended up getting a day off or two and then that time off was able to recharge them. The one thing that was great as a nurse in the clinic with short appointment times is you can easily turn it off at night. If you're in an ICU or a critical care unit, you might be thinking about that one patient. How you left them. Are they okay? Working in the clinic, we can turn it off and try to really enjoy family or whatever it is at the time that that person was going to do. If we support our teams, our staff, and ultimately make a great environment for people to work in, they're going to want to do great. This was for me, a support piece that I needed to do.

How did the pandemic lead to an increased need for self-care and can you give us examples of what you did when you started feeling burnt out on the job?

One of the things I did when I felt like the mood was changing in the clinic was bring in a wellness specialist or wellness coordinator and they really do serve purpose in supporting staff. I created an afternoon lunch and learn to help people think about things differently. It's good to hear other people talking about a situation because it makes you think about it differently. It's also good with every resource that we had that it's not always me talking to them. That was a good thing at huddles that it wasn’t just me talking or another individual, but this was like a lunch and learn with a wellness expert and it allowed for discussion because the team was fantastic.

The wellness specialist is here to stay because the whole point of self-care is if you're feeling good inside you can take care of others. We want to be able to keep things in check and there is no stigma now, as it was years ago. It's not a weakness. It's brave to come forward and say, I think I need to talk to somebody.

Most big companies and institutions have EAP or employee assistance programs, and they offer confidential support with someone that can speak to you, which is really great because if you're feeling well inside, you're going to do your job well.

My own burnout situation took place in December of 2022. I was someone that gives so much and I want to do the best I can, but we had a lot of sick individuals with COVID. So they’re not at work and we’re short-staffed. We can't bring as many individuals in and it's a lot of pressure on the group that is actually working. I remember having a huge line outside and that’s when I was feeling overwhelmed because it was hard for me to take a break or a vacation. It was hard for the team as well. It was a feeling of complete overwhelm because I've worked so much. We knew that testing was going to basically come to an end.

In a way, it feels like it was so long ago, but in essence, it wasn't and it's still carrying on and long-term health care, long-term homes and in the hospitals, of course. It’s still happening. One of the things that I think people probably in my age group want to do is protect their parents who might be immunocompromised. That's always in my head.

The burnout for me was real. It wasn't long-lasting because what I did do and that was maybe easier in my position, was to take some time. To step back a little bit and just breathe because when you've got almost 150 people outside, short-staff of nurses saying they want to walk out, like on this one day, that’s a lot of pressure on one individual. We made it through, and the team did the best that they could because that is what a healthcare worker does. No matter who it is, they are going to go that extra mile for patients and provide service and that's what health care is about.

What is the importance of self-care for healthcare workers coming out of the pandemic and going into the future?

The biggest thing they can do is really recognize inside themselves what is happening. Am I being the team player I should? Am I doing my whatever procedure is as well and as it should be done? Am I lagging? What I hope in management is that they really are paying attention to their teams. Directors checking in with the manager and making yourself present and doing a check-in, whether it's at a huddle, which is where a team gets together and discusses events of the day or having open conversations with staff. That means there has to be a level of trust and you need to make sure that you have trust built within your team and mention that you are open to listen if they have problems that they want to discuss. If someone is having difficulties, that’s where that manager will come in and say, Well, I have this wellness specialist here to help, and we also have the outside external EAP or employee assistance program with many opportunities there to help and even seeing their own GP. We have so many more resources to help us and we just need to say ‘I need help’. That's all you need to say and reach out. People are willing to help and that's the amazing thing.

If there is a nurse that is interested in coming back to work and the manager has a good relationship with them, they can call them and say, what are you willing to give us? Maybe it's something casual. Maybe they only want two days a week. The other thing that they could do is if it's a 12-hour shift, maybe they can cut it to eight. At the end of the day, 8 hours of someone extra on the floor is better than running a whole shift short. Really looking at those high times when you're giving out meds or blood work need to be done and planning around that. Make sure employees are taking breaks because again, those breaks are so important.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about today?

I hope that from the pandemic that somehow, someway, maybe somebody has recorded what has happened. I know I've submitted some pictures to the institution I worked at, and I do hope that we have learned from this and not just word of mouth, but we need to know what we need to watch out for because there probably will be another pandemic. We need to learn from this pandemic. I know what I hear about the four-day workweek. Maybe something like that will come into play because people now want to spend time more with their loved ones which was another reason for people leaving nursing and other healthcare professions.

I do hope that we allow our bodies to recharge in the workday or the workweek. I hope the learning has come from the pandemic and when the next thing comes, we pull out what we know or the people we know and say, what are we going to do? We already have the knowledge on our next steps, and we are armed with the information skill set we will need.

Read More:

Empowering and Uplifting Nurses in 2023

How Recognizing Your Employees Can Lead to a Better Workplace

The Importance of Self-Care at Work

5 Steps to Land your Dream Nursing Job

All About Healthcare Human Resources

About Susanne Kish

Susanne started working in Hamilton, Ontario in Nuclear Medicine, as a Technologist at McMaster Hospital and maintained sidebar interests, Radiation Safety Officer, Professional Practice, and Quality Assurance Committee at the College of Medical Radiation Technologists of Ontario for several years and research imaging. By networking with all types of backgrounds, becoming engaged enriching her knowledge and her career grew. Working in regulations with Policies & Medical Directives, she increased her knowledge of Nursing Practice, and the needs of the Indigenous.

Susanne is a motivated individual, takes initiatives, and makes lasting improvements. This is a constant on her radar. She adored teaching students in the hospital, and was selected by many as a mentor, for healthcare projects with University of Toronto. She enjoys lecturing to large groups about the importance of bone density, to Kindergarten children about the importance of hand washing and what a Hospital is. She worked in the private sector with Healthcare IT, training Radiologists as a Program Manager to evaluating newly developed software. She returned to the professionalism of hospitals, there is no place like it!

The COVID Pandemic was a piece of history that was unforgettable in Hospitals and she was a part of history, at St. Mary’s Hospital, in Kitchener. She was asked to manage the COVID Clinic, and it was a successful, well-run location. Every day was different, change was a constant from guidelines to process, and she enjoyed bringing a semblance of structure to the clinic while the global COVID crisis prevailed. She worked far too much at the time, and now the world of Healthcare has changed, and she is definitely glued to her seat for the changes to come, and they must, nothing can stay the same!

Read More:

Conquering Surgical Studies and Deficiencies in Women's Healthcare

Let's Learn About Self-Care - A Conversation with Karisa Haverkamp

Working as a Frontline PSW & HCA

Living Life as a PSW In Today's World - A Conversation with Taylor Booroff

About The Author
Cali Wiersma
Social Media & Content Specialist

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