Reducing Distress During Uncertain Times


Featuring Dr. Katie Sardone and Sandy Scott Consulting Group

As we all cope with the difficulties of the COVID-19 era, and navigate through this uncharted territory, many health systems and medical organizations are looking for strategies to maximize their staff’s well-being.

Back in April, the Well-Being Index hosted a webinar Q&A to address this topic. The discussion, featuring Dr. Katie Sardone and Sandy Scott, answered questions from healthcare leaders from around the world and offered insights into the specific, actionable steps institutions can implement to reduce distress during challenging times, such as:

While these steps are largely focused on the COVID-19 circumstances, the solutions and practices can be applied to other situations that may cause similar uncertainty and distress.

Understand the causes of distress

One of the first steps in reducing distress is to fully understand what is causing it. For organizations looking to improve the overall well-being of their staff, and for individuals trying to maximize their personal mental health, it is vital to identify the specific sources of anxiety and stress and then focus on changing the factors that are within control. 

For many, any situation that causes unknowns will produce anxiety and concern. It is human nature to fear the unknown, but there are steps that anyone can implement to combat this distress. Creating a sense of stability, predictability, and normalcy within one’s own life can take the brain out of a panicked ‘fight or flight’ state and into a rhythm that can cause soothing. Adjusting your lifestyle to create this stability through sleep habits, eating schedules, and daily tasks can improve your sense of control and reduce stress from uncertainty.

Validate fears and calm concerns

For leaders, it’s important to validate the fears of your staff and acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns. On a personal level, while counterintuitive, it may be productive to lean into the negative feelings and give ourselves permission to feel that concern rather than pushing them away. Then, we can implement strategies to move through the stress and combine the negative feelings with the awareness of what is going right. 

In unprecedented times, it can be stressful for employees returning to work who may have been furloughed or working from home. Successfully managing transitions and the ambiguity of the situation can greatly impact the sense of well-being. Leaders must practice active listening to understand and validate fears and have a clear expectation and message for how the situation will be handled. 

Recognize the full range of emotions

In new and stressful situations, it’s natural for people to experience a wide range of emotions, some of which may conflict with each other. Healthcare professionals often feel that they have a moral obligation to serve while also feeling concerned and reluctant about putting themselves or their families at risk. It’s important for leaders to help individuals recognize that it’s ok to have conflicting feelings. 

It’s also helpful to consider all the different types of reactions to times of high stress. Based on an individual’s life circumstances, they may experience feeling proud, energized, enthusiast, and exhilarated by the new demands of a situation, while others may feel scared, panicked, and afraid. Many factors can influence these stressors, and it’s important to be ready to care for all possible reactions.

Implement immediate initiatives

There are many actionable steps and system-level tactics that can be implemented to improve well-being that don’t require a lot of time or resources. One of the most effective strategies to reduce distress is to reinvent your communication. Many have found success in implementing daily huddles to start the shift together and practice active listening. Virtual organizational or department-wide meetings with senior leaders can also create a sense of togetherness and improve morale and confidence. Anything leaders can do to remove the red tape and reduce unnecessary administrative burdens can support clinicians during busy and hectic times.  

Foster a supportive culture

According to a recently published JAMA study titled Understanding and Addressing Sources of Anxiety Among Health Care Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic, adequate support was one of the eight main concerns among providers. Creating a culture of support can greatly impact well-being, especially during challenging and stressful situations. 

Peer-to-peer support is equally as important as support from the organization. Promoting random acts of kindness among individuals and acknowledging each others’ fears and challenges can be powerful and foster connections that bring the entire staff together. Asking genuine and thoughtful questions and checking in on each other are simple steps that can go a long way. Organizations can assist in this effort and foster the supportive culture by being transparent and vulnerable in communication and finding ways to share hope and positivity.

Encourage teams to prioritize their well-being

While it may be simple, oftentimes just hearing the message that it’s important and necessary to prioritize mental health can be a needed reminder to providers. Along with encouragement, leaders should provide easily-accessible resources to team members focused on coping strategies, signs and symptoms to look out for, and other informational materials to help departments stay safe. Removing the stigma of asking for help by offering anonymous tools to increase well-being and explaining the confidentiality of internal policies can increase participation in your wellness efforts during stressful times. 

Provide hope

Finally, it’s important for leaders and organizations to provide hope during difficult and demanding situations. Acknowledging the weight of reality, accepting the factors that are outside of control, and allowing room for hope is vital to maintaining an optimistic and healthy view of the situation. Reminding clinicians that they are trained for this and that there is no one more equipped to handle the circumstances can be a powerful message of hope. 

Never underestimate the power of listening. If all you do for an entire day is listen to people so they feel heard and understood, no time was wasted. Actively ask people what would give them hope and provide authentic messages of inspiration. Along with listening, physical presence can be powerful for leaders. Scrubbing up alongside clinicians will drive home the message that we are literally all in this together. 

Actionable steps to reduce distress

In times of unpredictability, we must identify the factors causing the most distress, focus our efforts on those factors that are within our control, and do everything in our power to support clinicians so that they can do their job. While the circumstances may feel overwhelming, there are actionable tactics that can be put in place to reduce stressors and maximize well-being. Watch the Q&A webinar in its entirety here for even more information.

Katie Sardone, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist and the founder of Behavioral Health Dallas, PLLC. She specializes in providing clinical health psychology intervention and healthcare consultation. Dr. Sardone is also the President-Elect of the Dallas Psychological Association.

Sandy Scott, FACHE, MPA is a Certified Professional Coach and President of Sandy Scott Consulting Group, a talent and leadership development firm dedicated to improving quality metrics at health systems and the well-being of providers through research-based leadership training, coaching, and proven consulting solutions. 


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