CW Ep. 26: Healthcare & Policy with Meredith Mills
Meredith Mills, COO of Country Meadows Retirement Communities, shares why mom’s are magic! Studies show that 82% of long term care workers are female, but a focus on fitness, mental health and support of coworkers is essential no matter your gender.
Welcome to Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday, I’m Meredith Mills, Senior Vice President and COO of Country Meadows Retirement Communities. Well, it’s been a long year, especially for those of us in the long-term care industry, but really for everyone who’s had their lives flipped upside down in one way or another due to the historic global pandemic, as well as the chaotic and ever changing government response that’s followed. When I look back to my naive thought process in March that this whole thing would be over in less than six months, and we would just have to be brave for the short term, but that this was doable. I realized now that I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve trained as a long distance runner in college and I’ve run half marathons and in a marathon, it’s truly taught me to remain steady and focus on just one foot in front of the next, as this race drags on.
Although over the summer, we started to see some signs of improvement, at least where I am in the Northeast of the country. The fall has brought with it the unfortunate prediction come true of another surging wave of COVID cases. And the problem now is that frankly, people are tired. They’re tired of distancing from family and friends. They’re tired of wearing masks, tired of working from home, hearing about COVID nonstop. Beyond being tired. Many people are truly weathering the challenges of anxiety and depression that have come with a year filled with uncertainty and change. And so even as we see potential vaccines and treatments coming to fruition and the end of the pandemic, possibly in sight, I’m truly worried about the secondary fallout of this pandemic: the amplified mental health challenges that COVID has created.
For all of us, the stress of not knowing the course of this terrible virus and the idea of being separated from those that we love for such an extended period of time has been incredibly tough. And for many, the pandemic has brought with it. The additional challenge of working from home for many parents in the workforce who rely on school or outside childcare centers to support them during the work day. So it may come as no surprise that who’s really tired this year is moms. Although in the beginning of the pandemic, the stories and memes that were circulating from mothers complaining about being home with their children, left me with a sense of annoyance. Of course, I thought mom should be happy about not being thrown into healthcare, where there is no work from home during the pandemic. I quickly ate my words when my own four-year-old fell ill and I was stuck at home pending his COVID test, trying to lead a conference call while he melted down, because I put his four-foot stuffed dragon headfirst into the cardboard box rather than tail first, the way he had envisioned, taught me pretty quickly, the challenges of balancing work from home with caring for children, still, for those of us that didn’t have that option, the pandemic has caused additional stress as we negotiate ways to ensure our kids are cared for educated and supported while we fight on the front lines, caring for and protecting those on the other end of the age spectrum.
I know that in some of the assisted living communities my company runs, we’ve risked entire sections of a workforce being disrupted. When COVID cases have caused a school or a daycare that their kids attend to abruptly shut down due to a positive case or cases, and like most childcare challenges, figuring out how to make it all work often falls disproportionately on mothers. Even before the pandemic, this tended to be the case. Now I don’t dispute that there are dads out there killing it. I know for a fact that my husband is one of them and I’m forever grateful that I have a partner so willing to embrace equal efforts in parenting, but there remains a mental workload, almost always falls disproportionately on the woman. As she’s often the one who manages the household. I thought about this as I was recently hairspring my son’s blue colored hair into a mohawk for crazy hair day at school, early on a Monday morning. And I thought about the fact that my child having a fun Halloween costume or a bigger pair of shoes when he quickly grows out of his current pair, the snacks that he likes on hand, the proper paperwork for daycare and the appointments for vaccines scheduled on time. All of this seems to happen without anyone realizing who juggles it. That’s because let’s face it. Moms are magic.
This type of work is often unseen and may seem insignificant, but it causes women’s minds to work overtime, even when they’ve just done a full eight or more hours at their paid job. And to make it more complicated in our industry, the majority of our workforce is female. And many of them are of an age where they still have children at home. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 82% of the longterm care workforce is female. This should come as no surprise to most of us. As we see that caregiving has historically been done by women, but this adds an additional level of susceptibility of our caregivers to feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, possibly even overwhelmed when they have so many others depending on their ability to keep all the balls in the air. So during a year when I know that many of us have already all tried to focus on how to better support our own mental health and balance in the face of so much uncertainty and stress, what can we do to ensure our workforce is also supported?
First of all, as a company, we can all do better with creating resources for mental health support and parent-friendly policies. I’m someone who feels particularly strongly about being open with mental health, being just as important as physical health to our overall well being. And about the fact that I’ve had to work on this in order to ensure that I can be there for my own coworkers and my family. This year has especially highlighted the importance of self-care. And there are many ways you can encourage this within your workforce. Some of the more standard resources like employee assistance programs can be basic or robust in nature. I know that at my company, our coworkers are able to have up to six sessions with a counselor for free, for any new issue and so can their immediate family members. Our EAP program was actually so popular last year that our provider told us that our coworkers were using a little too much and our rates were subsequently increased, but that’s how much we believed in it and promoted it because we knew that this was an important resource for our coworkers.
We’ve also shown our commitment to mental health by ensuring that our coworkers have access to affordable mental health services. And we’ve advocated to ensure that ongoing therapy services don’t carry a higher copay than any other necessary medical appointment. With the recent historic election of our first woman as vice-president, one wonders, whether anything will change with parental leave benefits in the US, whereas my cousin who lives in Germany and just had her first child told me that most of society would not expect her to return to the workforce for at least a year and their version of family leave protects both she and her husband’s jobs for two years after the birth of a child. Our system leaves much to be desired in the US. Couple that with the unusually high maternal death rate for a developed country, and one can see that being a mother doesn’t come with the same support in America that it does in most developed countries across the world.
I’m lucky that within my company, we offer a short-term disability plan with 50% pay projection for new moms and to any coworker facing disability status, but most companies don’t, or aren’t able to offer any type of paid maternity leave. And this is a time that’s really important for the mental health and bonding of a new child and their mother, but beyond being able to control the benefit choices that your company offers, mental health can be supported through small actions at the community level. For instance, one of our EDS created a fitness challenge where cards with certain exercises like: go do 25 jumping jacks were created. And after a coworker completed the challenge card, he or she had to pass it to another coworker to challenge them. At some point throughout the week. We’ve also done various fitness challenges to encourage our coworkers, to get steps in or a workout in through healthy competition, either internally or against outside teams. And we have walking paths on many of our campuses, which we encourage coworkers to enjoy on their breaks and our resident fitness centers are available to them as well. And we encourage them to use free apps for meditation and mindful breathing that they may not be aware of with all the free things available on the internet. And a little bit of creativity, it doesn’t have to take a lot of money or time, but rather just motivation and encouragement to emphasize the connection between mental health and exercise and to support your coworkers in taking steps towards healthy habits.
Second, we need to allow flexibility in scheduling for those of you listen to the Bridge the Gap episode a few weeks ago with Cara Silletto, whose book Staying Power is by the way, an incredible read that I would highly recommend the concept of the importance of flexibility and empathy towards your coworkers life outside of work is not new and ensure that we recognize that fair is not always about being equal and that all coworkers are going to be more loyal to a manager or company that respects their needs overall as a human being for finding work-life balance.
This is a especially true for how you handle the schedules of salaried co-workers, who don’t get additional pay for overtime and are often taking calls and emails outside of normal working hours due to the 24/7 nature of our business. I’ve been known to rip up requests for two hours of PTO, so that a manager who reports to me can go to a personal medical appointment or other responsibility. I just don’t think it’s worth it when I know they’re working two hours within that week in some other way. And I know that many of my managers are hands-on, available at all hours and thinking of work quite a lot, even when they aren’t at the office.
So I try to ensure that they’re given the flexibility and comp time for their consistent efforts and availability, even for hourly coworkers, things have changed over the past decade since I’ve joined this industry. Our day shift may start at 7:00 AM, but if I have a good coworker who can’t get to work until 7:30, because she needs to get her kids on the bus, you’re going to bet I’m going to be flexible to that need. Of course there are limits, we have to ensure consistent support of our residents, but the low unemployment rate in the last two years has shown us just how valuable our coworkers are and what we need to do as employers to keep them happy and healthy and able to fulfill their needs to their families outside of work. And lastly, as female leaders in our industry, we need to lead by example people. Inevitably, we have to learn that we can’t do it all and being a woman and also a mother, this has become increasingly more clear as I’ve expanded in my leadership responsibilities.
Some of my hardest learned lessons have been around delegation and setting healthy boundaries. And I certainly have not been the best at either of these, but I’ve learned that the more I push myself to protect my personal balance, the better I am at both leading and at being a mother, wife, and friend. I’ve had to work extra hard to practice self-care, gratitude, mindfulness, and patience this year more so than ever before. But I also feel I’ve been a stronger and better leader in the face of this year’s challenges because of my commitment to striking that right balance. And I once heard it so eloquently put that ‘when the plane’s going down, you have to put on your own oxygen before you can help anyone else’. And so I want to thank you all for your feedback, engagement and attention over the past six months of episodes. And I want to thank you for understanding that I’m going to continue to focus on the balance I need by rolling off this responsibility onto others that need my attention. Recording these monthly messages has pushed me in many ways, but one thing it hasn’t taught me is how to get that darn stuffed dragon into the box, the way one patient four year old requires. So please excuse me, while I go to his aid in this very important mission.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode and all of my past episodes of Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday. Please continue to connect with me at btgvoice.com, #BridgetheGap or via LinkedIn. Thanks again.