Like many of us, Sylvia Perry, a nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital, started to feel the pressure as the pandemic set in across the country. The “high-stress work environment” came with “lots of unpredictability, long hours, and trauma,” Perry said.
Nearly a year into the crisis, the facility created a buddy system for its staff, giving everyone a chance to talk about their experiences on the job. If all goes well, the MGH “Buddy Program” could become the new model for employee counseling.
A Sense of Connection
Once the pandemic set in, the staff started to feel disconnected from one another. Layers of PPE and strict social distancing measures forced them to cope with the situation alone.
Kerri Palamara, a primary care doctor who leads the hospital’s Center for Physician Well-Being, created the program earlier this year to bring her colleagues closer together. “There was a sense of loneliness and disconnect between people and that people were really seeking human connection. And so, the Buddy Program came from the desire to fill that need.”
The program, which now has nearly 100 participants, assigns staff members to one of their peers, so they can check in with each other at the end of the day. After being paired, it’s up to the buddies to decide how often they communicate. The system is open to all staff members, including everyone from administrators to janitorial staff and cafeteria workers.
Palamara says it’s based on the military “battle buddy system,” which was designed to “make sure that people had someone to dock in with at the end of the day.” There are similarities between working on the front lines of a global pandemic and serving in the military, including the loss of life and near constant fear of dying.
Kenneth Shelton, a participant in the program, says, “There was no real time to decompress. And I think over days, that’s possible. Over weeks it’s tiring. But over months it becomes exhausting.”
Perry has also realized the benefits of having a “buddy” at work. “The only way that we can bring our A-game in caring for patients is to feel grounded and feel like we’re taking care of ourselves.”
She’s learned to lean on her colleagues for emotional and mental support. “[It] was this extraordinary coming together of providers and staff to create these urgent care centers and deal with just a lot of people who were quite sick,” said Perry. “So, there was this expression, we’re all in it together.”
For many, the pandemic took away the more intimate aspects of the job, such as chatting it up in the break room or getting lunch with a colleague.
Shelton was paired with someone he knew before the pandemic, but the program pushed their friendship to new heights. “This was an opportunity for us to talk a little bit more about those issues that we’re facing on a daily basis,” he said.
Getting Back to Normal
Now that COVID-19 cases are declining, the creators of the program say it may take on a whole new meaning as we try to get back to the lives and friendships we once knew.
“Our jobs now are different…whether you’re in a clinical role and doing telehealth from your kitchen table or in office roles where you’re working remotely,” Perry said. “We’re back, but we’re back in a way that feels different than before.”
It’s not clear how the pandemic affected the wellbeing of the workforce, but recent international studies suggest many healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients are still reeling with increases in depression, anxiety, insomnia, distress, PTSD, and burnout.
“These concerns of wellbeing and loneliness and burnout were problems before COVID-19 and so they were certainly going to be a problem afterward,” said Palamara. She says the pandemic taught healthcare workers to focus on themselves, not just the patients.
She hopes the program sticks around, regardless of what’s going on in the world of healthcare. “We wanted to design things that really extended beyond the time of surge or surges in this situation…like if you dropped it on the ground about a decade from now, it would still be applicable.”
Consider creating a similar program at your facility. You don’t have to be an expert in physician wellness to start a buddy system. Get a group of your colleagues together and exchange contact information to get started. From there, it’s all about building new relationships and being honest about your experiences on the job.
We could all use a friend right now, so don’t be afraid to reach out and check in.