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The health care industry is known for innovation and adaptability. Never have these traits been more necessary to survive than in today’s world. During the 2020 pandemic, most practices initially focused on essential tasks (e.g., complying with mandated closings and working through PPP loan considerations) to stay afloat. But now that many practices are recovering and returning to pre-COVID patient volumes, leadership is facing the challenge of meeting practice demand while properly managing staff’s individual personal situations.

In the best of circumstances, employees are currently struggling through increased stress, whether from work, child-care issues, homeschooling challenges, illness, and/or illness of loved ones. This is on top of the anxiety they may have already been experiencing prior to COVID. According to, 40 percent of American workers reported persistent stress or anxiety levels and 28 percent reported experiencing job-related panic attacks.1

Now consider those staff members who worked through the practice’s shutdown period; they might be frazzled and resentful of being required to work without a break. Staff members who were furloughed or had reduced hours/salary may be nursing some resentment against the practice. So, what can employers do to bolster their teams and help the practice survive this stressful time?

During this critical period, physician-owners must take stock of their team’s morale along with the leadership and the culture of their organization. Once they have a pulse on the business and its people, owners can then address any identified staffing challenges using the five tips below.

1. Stand in Someone Else’s Shoes

Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s iconic research article “What Makes a Leader?” identified five components of emotional intelligence. One of the ingredients is empathy—however, don’t mistake empathy for the “mushiness” where we ignore business’s tough realities. In this case, empathy means “thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings — along with other factors — in the process of making an intelligent decision.”2 When faced with a situation, physician-owners should first take a moment to stand in their employees’ shoes, seeing the situation from their perspective. Leadership can then genuinely express empathy before focusing on a solution that resolves the issue with the best possible outcome.

2. Focus on Risk Management

The National Law Review indicates that employers will face employment law liabilities post-pandemic. The top five areas of concern include wage and hour claims, leave complaints, workplace safety grievances, discrimination charges, and Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act violations for sudden layoffs.3

So, when thinking about your business’s recovery strategy, consider including your HR attorney as a member of your practice team. Even if your company has survived many years without needing ongoing legal counsel, these times are challenging and constantly changing. Employment law differs based on state, practice size and the uncertain interpretation of new legislation. Before making big decisions that affect staff and could ultimately lead to litigation, seek legal advice.

3. Maintain Confidentiality

With employees (or their family members) contracting the coronavirus, employers walk a fine line between informing their staff of possible exposure and maintaining employee confidentiality. When determining what you can and cannot share with other staff members, practices must seek guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local government, and their attorney. Since requirements are constantly changing, check these sources regularly to understand the latest reporting and notification responsibilities. For instance, on Oct. 15, 2020, OSHA released new guidance on employer-mandated reporting, making it clear that the reporting time frames for a “work-related incident” are triggered by “an exposure to COVID-19 at work, rather than a diagnosis.”4

Reporting and maintaining proper confidentiality also extends to other employee personal matters. For example, if a staff member shares that she needs different work hours due to child-care issues, leadership should hold this information in confidence. At the same time, general information such as a work shift request must be communicated to the team to determine if the accommodation can be made.

4. Stay Flexible, But Consistent

On every level, employers and employees are in new territory, trying to navigate everything from unplanned extended absences to the impact of child-care issues. Though the Department of Labor has issued FAQs and ongoing guidance related to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, some of the information is confusing or contradictory, making it challenging to stay on the right side of labor laws and ensure the practice is following required policies. For example, many practices need help dealing with their specific scenarios as they relate to which employees are covered under the FFCRA, who is a health-care worker, and how to count hours for part-time workers.

The best option to deal with these challenges is to seek legal counsel and remain flexible but consistent. For example, employers can offer flexibility related to COVID absenteeism but hold employees accountable for other types of attendance issues.5 Employers must lay out policies and apply them across the organization.

Amidst all this uncertainty, remember that flexibility, while still holding employees accountable, is a process. Work to make the best decision possible in the moment, understanding that adjustments need to be made to keep the workforce moving in a positive direction.

5. Focus on Culture and Leadership

Some practices may be reluctant to invest time and money into culture and leadership development or may perceive the topic as “touchy-feely.” However, the Harvard Business Review tells us that, “culture shapes the attitudes and behaviors of an organization. If we want our employees to behave a certain way, we must create a shared, pervasive, enduring, and implicit philosophy around our business.”6

Culture does not happen by accident. Leaders must have the training to help design a great place to work that also satisfies staff moving forward.


According to Deloitte, a multinational professional services network, a typical crisis plays out over three stages: respond, recover, and thrive.7 Right now, many practices are in the responding or recovery phase. Practices that adopt empathy, seek legal advice, maintain confidentiality, stay flexible, and focus on leadership are the ones that will move into the thriving phrase.

Your staff is essential throughout that recovery trajectory, so if your practice has been struggling with staffing, recommit your focus to bolstering your team. Amid this crisis, remember to assist, support, and develop where you can, then let go of what you cannot control.

1. Shawn Singh. “Workplace Stress and Anxiety After COVID-19.” 11 Sept. 2020.

2. Daniel Goleman. “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review. Jan. 2004.

3. Jayde Ashford Brown, Susan F. Wiltsie, and Robert T. Dumbacher. “Top Five Employment Law Liabilities Facing Employers Post-Pandemic.” The National Law Review. 22 June 2020.

4. Allan Smith. “OSHA’s COVID-19 Reporting Obligations Clarified.” SHRM. 15 Oct. 2020.

5. “COVID-19 FAQ: Attendance.” Ogletree Deakins.

6. Boris Groysbrg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng. “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.” Harvard Business Review. Jan. 2018.

7. “Workforce Strategies for Post-COVID Recovery.” Deloitte.

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