By Kathleen Kaskel
I could sense employee tension building by the middle of March as construction crews prepared for the pandemic. Aside from the very wide air-venting systems going through windows to provide negative air pressure, even the laying of yellow tape lines for the barriers in and out of rooms created shocking ripples that “this is real!”
More than two months in, the emotional tension of COVID seems to have found its balance. We are, however, also prepared for surging should that occur.
Rather than go home after a day’s work either in knots or bottled up, people have begun to find their own way of maintaining emotional balance. People are finding these various ideas helpful.
Baby monitors or Stratus Video can help families who are unable to be with their loved one, a huge cause of moral distress for staff. We make a point of sharing with the deceased’s family what a person’s last hours or moments included as part of reverence for the dying person and to help families process their grief.
Humorous language can redefine the environment. For instance, some of our staff have named the unit “Camp COVID” with camp counselors and camp directors. Some staffers are also deliberately watching funny animal videos when they have a moment.
Team members are actively watching out for each other. When someone is intensely focused, they may not even realize their personal tension is building. Others may supportively approach them and offer to take on part or all their responsibilities to give them a much needed break. The HOPE bag has been a well-received pilot program for workers who are emotionally overwhelmed. The bag contains simple, small items such as a handwritten card, candies, incense, lip gloss, and a pin to wear, if they choose, regarding having a bad day. And we have set up a quiet room with supplies to help us relax, including candles, coloring books, music, and other tools to aid in meditation and prayer.
We have also encouraged staffers to debrief, de-stress, decompress with a coworker, unit leader, or friend who understands the realities of the medical workplace and HIPAA. In the course of their jobs, we remind them to not rush past the immediate moment and use mindfulness techniques, scripture, or prayer as they feel comfortable. On breaks or at lunch, some staffers find it helpful to deliberately avoid news or mention of COVID-19 and to take a walk outside.
But as the chaplain, I continue to frequently hear statements of excruciating pain from both staff and families. It hurts to “not be there holding my mother’s hand as she is dying,” “not be allowed to be with my loved one,” or “not having a viewing or funeral.” People frustratedly ask “why CAN’T the clergy come to be with them?” or are forced to cope with “working here and having a coworker die from a freak accident.” Personal family crisis events dovetail onto the already high stress of the job, and some seek out the chaplains for preventing overload.
We may be past the first wave. But after years of facilitating grief programs, I know that the abrupt cessation of rituals used for generations means that the challenging multicultural psychological impact of complicated grief awaits us in the coming months.
Kathy Kaskel, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton, PA.