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VIEWPOINT: Every business leader now has a new role: Healer-in-Chief

By Kimberly Townsend


A study released by the CDC in early July revealed some eye-opening statistics about frontline workers in my industry: 

• Since March 2020, respondents (health-care workers) reported experiencing traumatic events or stressors. 

• 72 percent felt overwhelmed by workload or family/work balance

• 11.8 percent have received job-related threats because of work

• 23.4 percent have felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of work 

These numbers are as alarming as they are disheartening. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all weathered the same storm albeit in different boats. But the frontline workers in the health-care industry — the caregivers who stood firm during some of the rockiest times by working day and night caring and tending to others — are feeling exhausted and in need of care and attention themselves. 

The Washington Post also reported in April 2021 that about 3 in 10 health-care workers have considered leaving their profession. 

As leaders and managers, we may be grieving a loss in our company’s bottom line and be anxious to get back to normal. But, as anxious as we are to push for normalcy and implement a plan to recover from financial losses, now is just not the time. Now, we must focus on a new role — healer-in-chief.

The role of healer-in-chief requires a mind shift. Rather than asking for employees’ ideas on how to boost the bottom line and get back to normal, we need to be making an extra effort to ask how they’re doing and what we can do to help them. This mind shift isn’t restricted to work — it can also be applied as you relate to family and friends in your personal life.

The first step to establish this mindset is to recognize and meet people where they are. To help us do that, I offer these three key groups from “Helping Your Team Heal,” by the Harvard Business Review:

• Worried Well: These employees are healthy and have not experienced sickness in their immediate family. They may be missing key milestones (for example: graduations, weddings), normal work life (in person, not remote), and concern for the future. If they are optimists, they are hoping for the best. If they are less optimistic, they may be feeling the sky is falling.

• The Affected: These workers were sick themselves or are close to someone who was impacted by COVID. This group needs validation and accommodation.

• The Bereaved: These employees have lost a loved one and are grieving a death. Most will be far from acceptance at this point.

Once we understand people’s point of view, we can better understand how to approach them and what kind of support they may need. While the approach may differ, there are guidelines for handling life as the healer-in-chief:

• Acknowledge the facts.
• Accept the uncertainties of the present and the future.
• Acknowledge employees’ feelings.
• Be authentic.
• Go first.
• Employees hear bad (and good) news first.
• Create a culture of mutual support.
• Be intentional about creating meaning at work. 

These guidelines come from “The Pandemic Conversations That Leaders Need to Have Now,” written by a faculty member at Harvard Business School and his research associates. I highly recommend you check it out — at — if you’re looking for more in-depth information on this topic.

One final note — we are all human. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Honesty and vulnerability combined will get you far as you navigate the seemingly awkward conversations with co-workers, family, and friends. While our boats may be different, we can all feel the storm. And now more than ever, your organization and your team need a healer-in-chief.                                

Kimberly Townsend, Ph.D. is president and CEO of Loretto Management Corporation in Syracuse. She is an expert in the fields of health-care management, board governance, and leadership. Townsend is also author of “Lifecircle Leadership: How Exceptional People Make Every Day Extraordinary” and “Lesson in Lifecircle Leadership: A Guide to Pragmatic Altruism.”