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Coronavirus: RWJBarnabas Tackles Healthcare Worker Well-Being During Pandemic

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   November 11, 2020

RWJBarnabas Health's Connect Together initiative features more than a half-dozen well-being programs for healthcare professionals and their families.

RWJBarnabas Health has launched a sweeping initiative to boost the well-being of its healthcare workforce during the coronavirus pandemic.

Healthcare workers are in a precarious position at the frontlines of the struggle against COVID-19. Before the pandemic, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals were already experiencing high levels of burnout. The pandemic has increased stress in healthcare and introduced new challenges to healthcare worker well-being.

Frank Ghinassi, PhD, senior vice president of RWJBarnabas Health's Behavioral Health and Addictions Service Line, and president and CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, says the pandemic has strained the healthcare system and the professionals who care for patients.

"A pandemic like this is a force magnifier for demand on the healthcare system. No organizational structure is staffed for care as usual and a global pandemic. So, it overtaxes the system, and that overtaxing means it is overtaxing the human beings in the system. It is very important to keep healthcare workers functioning and to keep them healthy, both in mind and body," he says.

The pandemic is taking a heavy toll on healthcare professionals, Ghinassi says.

"A lot of what we are seeing is stress, and that can lead to distress. Stress can affect the ability to get a good night's sleep. Healthcare workers may be finding that they are less hopeful about the future. They may be questioning their career. … For those people who either are predisposed toward depression genetically or had histories of anxiety disorders or depression, they are more likely to have those symptoms recur."

To rise to the challenge, RWJBarnabas launched the Connect Together initiative this summer.

"It is a multilevel intervention that has the premise of connecting people to personalized support when, where, and how they need it. We have created a network of resources that are available in multiple contact formats. Resources are available live and in-person, by telephone through named or anonymous call center services, through online platforms such as Zoom and WebEx, and through email and Internet-based apps," he says.

Range of services

The Connect Together initiative is offering healthcare professionals and their families more than a half-dozen programs to address well-being during the pandemic, Ghinassi says.

1. Employee assistance program

"First and foremost, the resource that is probably most familiar with people is the employee assistance program. At RWJBarnabas, the employee assistance program includes six free counseling sessions, stress management seminars that can be conducted on the phone or online, and a series of calming videos that are designed to provide stress relief," he says.

2. Be Healthy program

The Be Healthy program offers resources for healthcare professionals to take care of themselves and their families both physically and emotionally. Be Healthy includes online workout videos, self-guided relaxation programs, mindfulness activities, tips on health and nutrition, and easy technology to track health habits online.

"There is an extensive wellness video library. There are things like videos for at-home yoga and fitness activities. There is an opportunity to interact with health coaching by nationally certified, on-site health coaches," Ghinassi says.

3. Schwartz Rounds

RWJBarnabas is offering Schwartz Rounds to help healthcare professionals discuss challenges in the workplace.

"These are very different than typical medical rounds, where the purpose is to discuss a case and talk about all the technical expertise that goes into delivering healthcare. The Schwartz Rounds talk about a stressful case or adverse event clinically through a brief panel discussion, then allow the healthcare professionals to interact either in person or by video with their thoughts, feelings, and experiences," he says.

Schwartz Rounds are well-suited to the adversity associated with the pandemic, Ghinassi says. "The Schwartz Rounds are an opportunity for healthcare workers to share what it is like to deliver healthcare under these trying circumstances. It allows for universality, for support, and for humanizing the challenges that go along with being a healthcare provider in these difficult times."

4. Peer-to-peer support

The Connect Together initiative includes several peer-to-peer programs for a range of people including healthcare professionals, police officers, veterans, and mothers who have children with behavioral health disorders. RWJBarnabas is offering the peer-to-peer programs in a partnership with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.

"We stood up a peer-to-peer line specifically for this crisis called the Doc-to-Doc Together Line, where a group of physicians from the RWJBarnabas community has volunteered to staff a hotline from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Physicians can call and speak anonymously with another doctor about what they are experiencing or use the line to connect with formal care," he says.

5. Good Grief program

Good Grief is a nationally based service that provides group opportunities to process grief when an immediate family member has been lost to COVID-19 or other circumstances, Ghinassi says.

"These resources have been made available free of charge to RWJBarnabas staff and faculty during the pandemic. The Good Grief program provides weekly support groups in addition to a variety of videos, podcasts, and webinars about the experience of grief—what to expect and how to deal with it."

6. Health plan programs

For staff members who are enrolled in the RWJBarnabas health plan, behavioral health copays are being waived during the pandemic. "There also is a health advocate program, which is one-stop shopping to access all of our programs to help navigate billing issues, and to connect staff and their loved ones to programs they are eligible for," he says.

7. App offerings

RWJBarnabas is providing staff members and their families with access to three proprietary apps that are designed to address behavioral health issues and to boost well-being, Ghinassi says.

AbleTo provides teletherapy programs and one-on-one support with licensed therapists to help manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Joyable provides online support, a personalized coach, and weekly activities to manage stress and recover from setbacks. MindRight provides an opportunity for teens and young adults to enroll in culturally responsive and trauma-informed coaching programs via text messaging.

8. Information sharing

To raise awareness about the programs offered in the Connect Together initiative, RWJBarnabas has developed a comprehensive set of interactive link grids.

"These grids are available in PDF form, so they can be emailed. In a color-coded way, the grids lay out our Connect Together programs in categories. It is a grid that has six columns and three rows. It tells staff members what a program is, what it provides, and who it serves. There is a legend at the bottom of the grid that makes it very easy to use," he says.

Assessing impact

RWJBarnabas is planning to assess the impact of the Connect Together initiative in the coming weeks and months, but it is certainly making a difference, Ghinassi says.

"The biggest outcome thus far has been service utilization. The employee assistance program tracks its utilization, and their utilization has spiked. There have been many more calls to their support lines. We track the call center lines, and we have seen spikes in those lines from people who self-identify from RWJBarnabas."

The Connect Together initiative can be implemented at other healthcare organizations, he says. "The lesson learned is how a broad array of both problems and accessible solutions can be marshaled quickly. Our efforts in Connect Together serve as a guide for how to do this quickly and effectively. There is an opportunity for this to be used by other health systems across the country."

Related: Coronavirus: How to Support the Mental Health of Your Healthcare Workers

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


The coronavirus pandemic hit the healthcare sector when levels of professional burnout were already high.

Utilization of employee wellness services have spiked since RWJBarnabas Health launched its Connect Together well-being initiative this summer.

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