In May at the University of Rochester, the neurology department sent out a needs-assessment survey to faculty and staff asking if they felt supported and if their wellness needs were being addressed.

Seven out of 10 said yes.

This is remarkably high considering they were in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and furloughs had just been announced at the hospital. What was this department doing to merit good ratings at a time like this?

They were focusing on their employees’ wellness.

Their efforts had actually started in January 2020, before most anyone had even heard of the novel coronavirus. In response to growing levels of burnout among healthcare workers — a national phenomenon that has hit neurologists particularly hard — Dr. Robert Holloway, neurology chair at Rochester, in Rochester, New York, created a director of wellness position.

Andrea Wasilewski

He hired neuro-oncologist Dr. Andrea Wasilewski for the new role. Prior to taking this job, Wasilewski had spearheaded a wellness program for the neurology residents at Rochester. She was excited to transfer many of her ideas to the department at large.

Support From the Top

“There was no position like that in the winter when our chair approached me about wellness for our department. It is unusual to have such support from the top for wellness,” Wasilewski told Neurology Insights during a recent interview. “We had some loosely laid out plans. I presented on wellness in March at our staff development retreat. The next week we were all working from home and wearing masks.”

In response to the pandemic she immediately launched a wellness support task force with a handful of her colleagues. That quickly grew and now there are more than 15 members representing all roles in the department.

The first thing the committee did was create an online portal where all COVID-related resources and information could be accessed easily in one location. Centralization was important “because so much was unknown and changing,” said Wasilewski.

Portal to Meditation, Volunteerism

Through this portal, employees can tap a variety of the wellness initiatives since launched by the committee. These include a support fund for furloughed workers, daily guided meditation, wellness seminars, a volunteer marketplace and a live journaling platform.

Like many facilities, Rochester was forced to furlough some employees. At that point, the wellness committee decided to reach out to faculty about contributing to a staff support fund.

“We have now raised $20,000,” says neurologist and committee member Heidi Schwarz. “The money is being distributed via Venmo or in gift cards to Wegmans, their local grocery store.”

A daily guided meditation series has been offered, via Zoom, for two months now. A core group of about 10 to 30 people typically take part and “it shows no sign of slowing down,” said Wasilewski.

They host a wellness seminar every other week. These hour-long virtual sessions have included a yoga class, gardening tutorial, and cooking class.

“We even had a virtual happy hour for our department,” Wasilewski said. “Our chair joins most of these too. When you see a leader taking part, it makes others want to join in.”

Outlasting the Pandemic

The volunteer marketplace gives people an outlet to help with grocery pickup, dog walking, babysitting, or picking up medication.

“Those who need them can also request services there,” adds Wasilewski. “It is very effective, especially because people have teenagers who don’t have jobs and are looking for things to do.”

The committee also set up a live online journaling platform where people can express feelings of gratitude or frustration, in their creative writing and poetry— anonymously if they choose. Wasilewski believes that many of these programs will outlast the pandemic.

“I think COVID has been a launching pad for wellness,” she says. “It has deepened the cracks that were already there and shone a light on the importance of these kinds of initiatives.”

Special thanks to Andrea C. Wasilewski, M.D., neuro-oncologist, assistant professor, and wellness director in the Department of Neurology at the University of Rochester.