Taking Care of the Caretakers

Blog

As I think about Women’s History Month, a lot of the issues and ideas that have been on my plate are coming together: the upheaval in healthcare employment, which is a pressing issue in my job; the easing of the pandemic and addressing what healthcare workers have been through; the ways in which some of our key clients have taken care of their employees with flexibility and understanding; women in healthcare balancing unexpected and difficult situations at home and at work; and how my own experience informs my thoughts on each of these things. I want to go a bit deeper than the headlines and share my appreciation of some truly heroic women who will, I think, become a significant story in women’s history.

First, I’m going to share with you my personal experience with healthcare workers during the pandemic because it’s where my understanding of their heroism really comes from. In April of 2020, my son, Owen, was diagnosed with a rare and incurable brain tumor. The weeks and months that followed were as awful as you imagine, and we said good-bye to our sweet, funny kiddo in October, just six months later. I know that’s a lot to process, but what I would ask you to do now is think for a minute about your own mental picture of the pediatric doctors, nurses, therapists, and aides that surrounded us. I’m sure you’re envisioning people with smiles on their faces no matter what they’re feeling inside, people who carefully explain complex and scary procedures to children to alleviate their fear. They’re people who make big celebrations out of small victories and who will rock a sick child to sleep in their own very tired arms. I also learned they’re people who explain procedures and prognoses to terrified parents with unending patience and understanding.

Or at least, that’s what they did before the need for PPE and social distancing, and before hospitals were overrun with COVID cases. Suddenly, not only was there not enough staff or equipment, but so many of the tools Owen’s caregivers would have relied on to give comfort and make things just a little bit closer to okay were gone. Smiles and silly faces were covered by masks, and hugs for kids or their frightened parents were out of the question. The full space-alien hazmat suits nurses wore made things even weirder and scarier. But what I saw was that rather than retreating into the masks and suits and clinical protocols, these magical people turned up their efforts at conveying empathy and comfort. Real heroism is feeling like you are completely depleted and still finding more empathy, more caring, more sheer healing power than anyone has a right to expect of you.

These are the women I want to celebrate this month because after taking such good care of Owen (and me and my husband) they went home to their own families and dealt with the fallout of remote work and school, shortages at the grocery store, friends and family testing positive, and all the other stressors big and small that have been a part of life since then. I am still awestruck at the fact that they did it day after day. But I also want to support the women in HR and TA who saw what their workforce was going through and applied their considerable creativity and empathy to help the helpers.

As Michelle Dellatorre, newly of Sunrise Senior Living, noted, there was a lot to be done at the macro level. At the start of the pandemic, she worked for a hospital where upwards of 300 patient-care providers at a time were quarantined before there was a definitive test. Michelle and her team went to work adjusting pay, restructuring bonuses, and doing what they could to appropriately compensate the physical and emotional effort healthcare workers expend. I have to think that the simple fact of the hospital doing its best to say, “We see you,” was meaningful. Who could have imagined the healing power of a spreadsheet in caring hands?

I think one of the beneficial aftereffects of the pandemic is going to be a permanent shift toward these kinds of acknowledgements that healthcare hero is no everyday job. In conversation with Michelle and others, some key themes keep surfacing. Surprisingly, community is quite prominent among them. In all the stories told about the last couple of years, it’s very clear that women in healthcare were working so hard not only for their patients but for their colleagues and communities as a whole. Diane Zimmer at Embecta believes we’re never going back to the way things were, and that’s a plus. Her focus as she builds teams for the new company is to ensure that everyone feels they belong, like they have a community at work that serves the larger community of patients they serve. This idea that an employee is being offered not just a desk but a seat at the table—where their questions and ideas are heard and appreciated—is another way to acknowledge heroes: you’re not just a title and a to-do list, you’re a person we value. Flexibility, too, is not going away. We’ve been hearing about new scheduling protocols, changes in part-time work, and even remote work for some tasks and roles. What these approaches signal to me is that individual employees’ value is worth rethinking the paradigms for. They say, “you’re valued in our community, and we’ll do what it takes to keep you here.”

Of course, for those who have been through the battles of the last couple of years, the dark bruises from their reused N95 masks are really just starting to fade, and I hope that they’re finally getting enough sleep. My own loss is still a huge part of each day, but the love of friends and family keeps me moving forward. I find it’s small gestures that make a huge difference, like someone telling me a funny story about Owen that I hadn’t heard before or mentioning his soccer team or favorite foods. (A six-year-old gourmet, he knew that hotdogs should be grilled—it’s the very best way to have them). In fact, it turns out that for people on all sides of a healthcare crisis, small acknowledgements have outsized value. A wonderful story from Megan Nelson at Memorial Heath in Springfield, IL, recounts the day that senior leaders delivered boxed lunches to staff—all shifts, so no one was missed—to show appreciation for the daily hard work of everybody from floor nurses to finance analysts. I hope these small but powerful acknowledgements of heroism become permanent, too.

Because of Women’s History Month, each of the clients I’ve mentioned here were asked what one gift they would give to their female employees to really show that employers understand what they’ve been through and what they could really use. Independently, all three said “TIME!”—healing, unstructured time with no to-do list and no worries. Michelle put it beautifully when she said that the time was needed “to breathe and refresh their brains, to rest and fill their cup.”

Please take some of your time to thank the caregiving women in your professional and personal life—especially if they’ve been working hard as medical practitioners. Whether you’re honoring Women’s History or thinking ahead to Mother’s Day or just helping them celebrate a day without another twelve-hour shift, do what you can to give these heroes some time to just be, with no expectations. We’re finally at a point where every moment is not an emergency, and those who have been in constant emergency mode need time to heal themselves. Definitely keep acknowledging and thanking them in big ways and small ones even as things get “back to normal”—whatever that is. My hope is that the history of our present moment and the heroic healthcare workers who labored tirelessly to keep bodies and spirits together become a part of women’s history, appreciated and lauded as they should be for decades to come.

Read more from

Amanda Shaker

Read more from

Blog

The Employer Brand Reveal: And the Magic and the Pride that Comes With it (Every Time)

Blog

Shaker Recruitment Marketing Names John Graham Jr. Vice President of Employer Brand, Diversity & Culture

Press Release

NOVEMBER JOB MARKET UPDATES: SHAKER’S TAKE

Blog

The New Shift of Employer Branding

Blog