A LISTENING EAR: Workforce Chaplains support healthcare workers as COVID wanes

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GREENFIELD — After a grueling two years working in the trenches of a pandemic, local healthcare providers are finally starting to catch their breath.

For many, that means allowing themselves time to process the immense mental and physical toll they’ve taken treating COVID-19 patients, losing many along the way.

Hancock Health launched a new employee benefit program Jan. 1, providing free counseling to healthcare workers who need help coping with how working through the pandemic has impacted them.

Jenny Weidner, director of human resources for Hancock Health, said the latest employee assistance program puts more emphasis on mental health support than ever before.

“Employees now have 24/7 access (to support) via text or phone, and they get eight free counseling visits,” she said.

“Healthcare workers are notorious for making their patients a priority over themselves. We want to make sure that we are taking care of the people who are taking care of our patients,” said Weidner.

The hospital has also entered into a three-month agreement with Workforce Chaplains, a locally-based nonprofit which provides spiritual care and support for more than 20,000 employees and their families — working with about 20 companies throughout the state.

Workforce Chaplains consists of a team of six chaplains who provide confidential care through a system which doesn’t divulge which employees are reaching out for assistance, even to the employer.

The chaplains meet with employees or their family members away from the workplace to talk through whatever is on their mind. They could grab a cup of coffee, meet on a park bench or simply talk by phone.

The goal is healing, no matter where the meeting takes place, said the nonprofit’s vice president of operations, Daron Day.

Both Day and the nonprofit’s founder, Marcus Schrader, live in New Palestine but provide care for those in need of extra support throughout the state. Their wives — Jennifer Schrader and Ashley Day — are also chaplains on the staff.

“Our motto is to love, serve and care for the employees and their families,” said Daron Day, who looks forward to working with Hancock Health employees.

“We’re there to be a listening ear as they work through processing grief or potentially anxiety about being at the workplace after all the trauma they’ve seen,” he said.

Day said Workforce Chaplains add an extra layer of care to the support already provided by Hancock Health’s in-house chaplains, Russell Jarvis and Laura Baker, who lend support and prayer to both patients and employees.

Weidner said having an outside resource can be helpful for employees coping with stress in the workplace, especially after a traumatic, ongoing event like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It can be hard to talk about your innermost feelings with somebody you see every day. Sometimes you just need somebody not associated with the hospital to vent, to talk to, to say those words out loud and be done with it, or to say a little prayer,” she said.

Baker embraces the extra emotional support that Workforce Chaplains provides, as she can relate to the stress and anxiety healthcare workers feel dealing with sick and dying patients, especially during a pandemic.

In earning her chaplaincy degree, Baker did a research paper which showed that a high percentage of healthcare workers are struggling with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder due to caring for COVID patients.

“It’s been a long two years,” she said. “You feel like you’re in the business of helping people go home, so it’s really difficult for us to see the opposite happening for so long.”

Day said it’s crucial for healthcare workers — and all those impacted by the pandemic — to process those feelings they may not have had the time or ability to process until the height of the pandemic is waning and life gradually returns to normal.

“Secondary trauma for healthcare works is a real challenge. The concern is the toll it’s taken,” he said. “We’re just happy to be one piece of the team helping those employees working through getting as healthy as they can be after a very challenging time.”

Weidner hopes that Hancock Health’s new employee assistance program will continue to provide hope and healing for a staff that has been stretched to its limits over the past two years.

“You can definitely see it on their faces. They’re tired. They’re worn out. They get emotionally connected to their patients, so they take their work home with them,” she said.

“A lot of times you don’t realize how long the patients are in this hospital, and how long (doctors and nurses) care for them,” said Weidner. “When somebody passes, it can be hard for them to deal with. They ask themselves, ‘Did I do everything I could?’ They question their own abilities.”

An ongoing event like the COVID pandemic can cause what’s known as complex trauma for healthcare providers, she said, referring to a type of trauma based on pervasive events that perpetually take place over time.

“It wears on people mentally, physically, spiritually. We want to make sure that during this time of respite from COVID, that our employees have the tools they need to care for themselves at this point,” said Weidner.

That’s where Workforce Chaplains comes in.

Weidner said hospital officials are excited to provide access to the program with Hancock Health’s 1,400 employees, as well as family members in their households.

Day said supporting those family members is essential.

“A lot of times the trauma of working through the pandemic is extended to loved ones,” he said.

“You have situations where a doctor or nurse may be sleeping in separate beds or even living separately from their family for weeks or months at a time, to protect someone in the house who is immuno-compromised, or you may have a parent or grandparent who is now living in the home,” said Day.

Plus, he added, the stress of any overtaxed worker can often be felt by others in the home.

While Workforce Chaplains provide spiritual-based care, including prayer, Day said the organization is non-denominational, and that prayer doesn’t have to be a part of the support employees receive.

Some are simply wanting a listening ear. Others may sign up for monthly support, getting a call from a chaplain to provide encouragement every few weeks.

Workforce Chaplains will also be stopping by the hospital, wellness centers and other Hancock Health places of employment from time to time to drop off cookies and check-in on employees.

“Whoever needs to talk, we’ll be there,” said Day.

Weidner, who has spent her entire career working in human resources, said that kind of emotional support is a priceless benefit to employees.

“We did have to put a little bit of money toward the program we’re offering, but it’s definitely worth every penny, even if it impacts just one individual,” she said.

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