By Rick Bell
Sep. 22, 2020
Easing the emotional pain of others is a challenge under even the best of circumstances. Providing mental health care and emotional comfort to tens of thousands of people during a pandemic is a testament to a providers’ dedication and resilience.
As the pandemic swept across the 75,000 people served by Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network in southeast Michigan, it was clear that massive changes in its mental health services were imminent. There was no question that uninterrupted services had to be maintained.
DWHIN, as it is now called after being formerly known as the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, is the largest community mental health agency in Michigan. Its providers serve children with serious emotional disturbances, people with substance use disorders, people with a mental illness and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
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“As soon as we were notified that we had to shelter in place, we sent all staff home to begin working remotely,” said Tiffany Devon, director of communications for Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network.
Technology plays a key role
If there was any silver lining to the pandemic’s initial impact, DWHIN’s IT department had just completed a companywide rollout of new laptops, cell phones and hot spots for all staff. The transition to work remotely could not have come at a better time, she said. With staff equipped to serve, they immediately let their patients know they were still open and available.
“We work with over 400 providers, so we had to make sure we were in constant communication with patients,” Devon said. “We established a COVID section on our website and added content to it on a daily basis. We send daily information to the providers who cascade it to the people we serve. We created an information phone line, a text line and a special newsletter to stay in touch with them.”
Since DWHIN’s 320 workers were essential employees, the health network couldn’t just shut down and spend two weeks planning what to do. The executive leadership reacted immediately to staff and patient needs, Devon said. Besides initiating leadership meetings, management met twice a week, she said.
Virtual communication strategies
“We created a reference guide to working remotely and shared with staff on our intranet, sent text messages about building shutdowns and stayed in constant communication with our stakeholders, board members, the state of Michigan, providers, and the people we serve to make sure they knew we were open but working remotely,” Devon said. “The HR department implemented policies on working remotely as well.”
Disseminating information has been key since the pandemic’s onset. DWHIN’s communications department has maintained a constant flow of updates and information regarding COVID-19 to keep staff educated and safe, she said.
The creation of weekly videos with the input of staff also helped engage employees with their co-workers.
“Pictures from vacation, graduations and favorite recipes are shared and posted on the organization intranet,” she said. “This really helped people see what others were doing and it helped us all feel connected. We also made sure we continued to hold our monthly staff meetings online to inform staff of all the changes going on throughout our health care system and the world around us. Providing a sense of trust and emotional security from your employer during these times is absolutely necessary right now.”
Because they no longer could work in the field, DWHIN staff initially had to schedule virtual meetings and appointments with clients who depended on their care. Clinicians switched to telehealth appointments where they would call and hold therapy sessions in a virtual environment.
“Telehealth has played a huge role as it is a good and safe alternative to face to face,” Devon said. Still, as mental health care workers they are always on the job and had to be prepared, she added.
“Providing all of our employees and ensuring that the people we serve had the necessary personal protection equipment was absolutely necessary very early on in this pandemic,” she said.
Many clients say they like telehealth and hope that it remains in place, she said. While the building remains closed to the public, DWHIN has held several rounds of COVID-19 testing for all employees.
The pandemic also gave DWHIN an opportunity to better utilize some of its staff that traditionally worked in the field or remotely serving clients. It was apparent that it was a strength and utilized that as they encouraged more employees to work remotely.
“For the most part, employees are coping, grateful that they are still employed,” Devon said. “We have held several rounds of mobile COVID testing for staff, and several are working at the building one or two days a week, which helps them see some of their colleagues.”
Communicating with employees remains key no matter the situation. Keep your team engaged and on the same page with Workforce Chat.
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