Fostering wellness in an integrated health-care system

By Cameron Love

The wellbeing of our staff has always been a priority, but over the past 15 months, its importance has become even more abundantly clear. As we meet the third and largest wave of the pandemic, we must ask our teams to rally again and push through seemingly insurmountable challenges.

People across the health-care system are experiencing extreme levels of stress, anxiety and exhaustion due to the relentless personal and professional demands posed by the pandemic. Burnout risk is high, especially in the health-care field where people are so passionate about their work and so committed to providing exceptional patient care. What we value most about them—putting others first—puts even the most resilient health-care worker at greater risk of falling victim to these chronic stressors.


This is why the future of world-class care within an integrated health system needs a values-based, data-driven, systematic wellness strategy for its people, with rapid and flexible implementation processes in place to protect and promote the wellbeing of our workforce. Providing resources and programs that promote both physical and psychological wellbeing will lead to a better staff experience, better patient outcomes, and a stronger health-care system overall.

Part of the challenge is that wellness is a two-way street. Hospitals can point staff to all the resources in the world, but staff need to be willing and able to use them. As leaders, we need to promote a physically and psychologically safe workplace and tear down systemic barriers that prevent our staff from reaching optimal wellbeing.

We can do so on two fronts: by managing on-the-ground issues that affect wellness such as staffing levels, workloads, and effective conflict resolution strategies, and by fostering a well and inclusive culture in which people feel comfortable being themselves.

What does this look like at The Ottawa Hospital? Our wellness strategy focuses on three pillars: healthy body and mind, healthy workplace and healthy culture. Intricately intertwined amongst these pillars is the hospital’s equity, diversity and inclusion strategy.

At the most foundational level, our values underpin our wellness strategy. Compassion, in particular, informs how our leaders interact with their team and support them through challenges. As those challenges arise, we ask our leaders to support each individual as though they were a loved one, just as we ask individuals to treat each of their patients.

A strong governance structure also bolsters our wellness strategy, whereby a dyad of executive sponsors and senior leaders collaborate on a corporate wellness strategy for physicians, resident physicians and staff, representing the full range of medical departments and service lines. Outcome accountability lies with this team. Committees were created as advisory boards which also support the feedback loop—implementation of specific initiatives and  communications back to the people they represent.

With values and governance supporting the “why” and “how,” data inform the “what.” Our quarterly wellness pulse survey to a random selection of staff and all physicians, which started two years ago, has provided us with invaluable information on various wellness markers. Data can be segmented as needed, including by role, for unique insights that can lead to targeted wellness initiatives. During the pandemic, we have compared current results to baseline data to identify trends and make real-time interventions.

Success of any wellness initiative also hinges on its integration into the organizational culture. When staff wellness is engrained into the culture of an organization and supported by senior leadership and middle management, staff feel safe, supported and respected. When a crisis hits, teams already know where to turn to help them weather the storm and feel confident in accessing the support.

Our Just Culture is a major factor in creating the circumstances for widespread uptake of a wellness strategy. In a just culture, staff feel safe to speak up when they need help or have made a mistake, which reinforces our continuous improvement mindset.

Many challenges lay ahead with respect to the pandemic, and we must remain focused on crafting timely, relevant and data-driven wellness strategies to support our staff during this challenging time. But we must also plan wellness in the health-care system of the future because our health system itself depends on it. When we create the systemic conditions for sustainable wellness, our health-care system remains strong because our people feel safe and free to apply their skills, increase their knowledge and pursue excellence.

And excellence is exactly what our patients deserve.

Cameron Love is the President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital.