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Q&A: How HR Professionals Can Support Practitioners Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

March 23, 2020

“Anything we discuss today,” Andrew Rawson, chief learning officer and co-founder of the HR training firm Traliant, said at the start of a recent interview with Behavioral Healthcare Executive, “let’s make sure that 24 hours from now, it’s still valid.”

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is creating unprecedented challenges for behavioral healthcare and addiction treatment providers, with new restrictions being implemented by local, state and federal governments daily. As clinicians wrestle with how to continue providing care to patients, human resources professionals are having to reshape organizational policies to accommodate a variety of needs.

Rawson spoke with BHE about new pain points for HR functions, how HR professionals can support their organizations’ practitioners with new policies, and other keys for preparing employees to adapt to new procedures that are being implemented.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What would you say are some of the biggest pain points currently facing the HR function of behavioral healthcare companies and the other clients you are working with right now?

I don’t know that the pain points of behavioral health organizations are that different from other organizations’ HR functions other than that they’re dealing with mental health professionals. Unlike a factory worker who is using a different part of their brain because their work is mechanical and about safety, efficiency and quality, mental health professionals are focusing on helping people learn to correct behaviors that are leading them to not have the right outcomes in life. While that part of their brain is working on that, they also have to be on their best behavior in dealing with colleagues. They’ve got the same part of the brain working on two things: One is interacting with the people they’re treating and caring for, and the same part of the brain has to interact with their colleagues. My guess is that creates a higher level of stress.

What, then, should HR being doing right now to support these professionals, especially in a time of crisis?

In the age of the coronavirus, now you have people who have never worked at home before or haven’t worked from home with your organization. They have to realize that just because you are working remotely, the rules of proper behavior aren’t suspended. Whether they’re on a video conference call or talking on the phone, they can’t abandon those good procedures. Especially now, we have to be careful not to express discriminatory thoughts about people of different national origins. As you’ve read, there has been a lot of discrimination toward Asian-Americans because of the origins of coronavirus.

An HR professional has to make sure their accommodating policies are evenly applied. If you’re going to allow a policy that if people need certain accommodations because their kids are at home and going to school online during the workday, they need flexibility in their working schedule. You have to allow the same thing for older workers who need a different accommodation. They may need to get out to get fresh air and walk and exercise to keep their stress levels down and their immune systems strong. You have to make sure your policies don’t discriminate as you try to accommodate people’s changing work roles.

What are some keys for ensuring employees have proper training and understand best practices with regards to new organizational procedures in light of current events?

While I’m not sure what would be put into place around COVID-19 in particular, we do like to tell people that it’s important that when it comes to having a work environment that is respectful, inclusive, non-discriminatory and non-harassing, it’s not about what you know, it’s about what you do. … When we train people, we train on watching the consequences of different types of behavior. I’m not sure that ties back to the current situation other than in general, in our own 75-person company and everyone we talk to, it seems that now is the time to be extra thoughtful, extra patient. No one knows the additional stress someone is facing. … You don’t know the stresses people are under, so it’s more important than ever that everyone be particularly careful and patient in their interactions with one another. That’s an important message from HR.

In the world of ethical behavior, antitrust and anti-bribery, they talk about how an organization is led by the tone from the top. People follow the leader. It’s important that the deed from the top follows the tone from the top. HR needs to be especially sensitive about people canceling meetings. You did it. When we got on the call, the first thing you said was, ‘Thanks for keeping the appointment in these stressful times.’ That’s a nice signal to send to your colleagues in this environment, that we realize we are all laboring under additional pressures. Now’s the time to slow down and be supportive. If we do that, we’re more likely to have an organization that doesn’t violate our policies or the law around discrimination and harassment.

Are there any other best practices or words of advice for HR professionals in behavioral health organizations that you’d like to share at this point?

Another good measure that HR can take now, as employees are distracted by the evolving COVID-19 news, is to train everyone on information security and data privacy – including how to spot phishing emails and other cyber scams. There have been reports that hackers are exploiting the health crisis by sending out emails that look like they come from officials at the CDC and WHO in an attempt to steal information or trick people into sending money or downloading malware, etc.

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