ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This year has brought more than its fair share of communication challenges for Albuquerque’s largest employers, ranging from keeping workers motivated and engaged during the rapid shift toward working from home, to trying to speak honestly about diversity in the wake of racial justice protests earlier this summer.
“I think we’ve actually had two viruses – we’ve got a pandemic, and we’ve got racism,” said Michele Reeves, chief inclusion and diversity officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services. “They’re prevalent in everyone’s lives … and they carry that over to work.”
Presbyterian and other employers have responded by hastily erecting new programs – from impromptu days off to virtual book clubs – aimed at keeping employees healthy and productive during a year that sometimes seems designed to prevent that.
The work is hard, but Reeves said the rewards are substantial. She said employers who support their workers through these challenging times can expect more buy-in from existing employees, which could help cement them as a more attractive place for future employees.
“People will really remember how an organization responded to the pandemic, how they respond to Black Lives Matter, and we want that to be an advantage for us,” added Joanne Suffis, Presbyterian’s chief human resources officer.
There’s little doubt the challenges of 2020 have taken a toll on the psyche of American workers. Monthly surveys published by the American Psychological Association have shown consistently higher levels of stress among the general population since the number of COVID-19 cases began spiking earlier this year, citing a variety of factors including the pandemic itself, job uncertainty and concern about racial injustice.
Within a few weeks of the first cases being discovered in New Mexico, many workplaces in the state had temporarily shut down or transitioned to remote work.
Maggie Tannen, vice president of HR and training for U.S. Eagle, said the credit union was able to move the majority of its employees to remote work with
relative ease, praising the “hero effort” from the company’s IT team.
At Sandia National Laboratories, up to 75% of the organization’s New Mexico workers at one point were working remotely.
Valerie Smith, senior manager for communications at Sandia, said the company built a website designed to keep workers informed about the pandemic.
“In any crisis, employees want to hear from their leaders,” Smith said.
As the pandemic wore on, what began as a disaster response evolved into an accepted way of doing business, with Zoom calls replacing in-person meetings and morning walks around the block replacing commutes.
But as the new stresses of working from home take a toll, organizations have had to find creative ways to keep their employees focused and involved.
Smith said Sandia set up a program that lets workers donate unused vacation hours to other employees struggling with childcare and other needs during the pandemic. Smith said more than 20,000 hours have been donated since the program began.
Renee Holland, director of employee health services at the laboratory, said the organization moved its onsite behavioral assistance program online, and offered options like virtual yoga during lunch to keep employees active even at a distance.
Along the same lines, the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center began offering a series of webinars on how mental and physical health are intertwined. The 30-minute webinars, aimed at both students and employees, began in April and target specific areas tied to both areas of health, according to HSC spokesman Mark Rudi.
Tannen said U.S. Eagle took a more direct approach, letting managers offer time off on a rotating basis as needed. In addition to discouraging workers from coming in sick, Tannen said the paid time off has given employees a chance to recharge during a crazy period.
“Your mental health is just as important as your physical health,” Tannen said.
Protests and policy
The shooting of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May and the wave of protests it sparked across the country also forced some employers to take stock of their approach to inclusivity.
Many large New Mexico employers already had robust diversity training programs before 2020 began, and they agreed that the groundwork they laid served them well.
Neil Reagin, director of human resources for U.S. Eagle, credited the credit union’s leadership structure for creating an office culture that helped encourage conversation following the protests.
“There’s a lot of organizations that … are still building that culture of communication,” Reagin said.
Esther Hernandez, chief diversity officer for Sandia, said when the lab moved to a predominantly remote-work environment, the diversity initiatives followed suit. Hernandez said the company implemented virtual trainings, through group chats and seminar-style classes.
“We’ll continue to foster an organization culture where inclusion and diversity are a cornerstone,” Hernandez said.
Presbyterian’s Reeves said the healthcare provider used the protests as a jumping-off point. After talking to some Presbyterian employees, Reeves said the company is working to eliminate racism across the system, both in its hiring practices and at the workplace itself.
Presbyterian is one of two New Mexico organizations participating in Schwartz Rounds, an international program that allows caregivers to share their experience and connect over the human side of medicine.
“I really think I’ve seen, more than ever, people wanting to have a place where they can have a safe dialogue,” Reeves said.
Additionally, Presbyterian has launched an online book club for employees to read stories about diversity in healthcare. For example, one book on the list, “Small Great Things,” by Jodi Picault, focuses on a nurse’s experience with an African American patient.
Beyond the human dimension, Reeves and Hernandez said they expect their organizations’ approach to pay dividends. Hernandez said the organization feels its diversity – 37.4% of employees are non-white, according to demographics published on its website – helps the labs do more innovative work.
“That is one of our primary responsibilities at Sandia, is innovative solutions to national challenges,” Hernandez said.
Reeves added that she believes that Presbyterian’s work will lead to greater trust in and satisfaction with the organization, ultimately making it easier to keep current employees and attract new ones.
“There’s a real value in helping people feel like they belong to an organization,” Reeves said.