As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drastically affect the health center workforce, the second season of the STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success podcast dives deeper into the immediate and long-term effects of this crisis on health centers. In this episode, ACU’s Michelle Fernández Gabilondo interviews Cheryl Petersen, CFO at East Valley Community Health Center in eastern LA County, to discuss the c-suite’s fundamental role in advancing workforce wellness and resilience during emergencies and beyond.
Full Transcript: The C-Suite’s Role in Advancing Workforce Wellness
Introduction: Welcome to the COVID-19 installment of STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success, which features the voices of workforce leaders from health centers and primary care associations around the nation. We know this invaluable information will help in your journey to advance the workforce initiatives of your organization.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Welcome, everybody. My name is Michelle Fernández Gabilondo. I am the senior training specialist here at the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved. We come to you today through the STAR² Center, and we’re speaking with Cheryl Petersen. She is the chief financial officer at East Valley Community Health Center in Eastern LA County. Welcome, Cheryl.
Cheryl Petersen: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Well, we’re very happy to have you. Just to start off, with anybody that we interview for our podcast, we always ask them about their health centers. Could you just tell me a little bit more about your health center, where it’s located and the patients that you serve?
Cheryl Petersen: Absolutely. East Valley Community Health Center is actually a federally-qualified health center, and we provide medical, dental, mental health services to individuals across East San Gabriel Valley and into the Pomona communities, right up into San Bernardino County. We have eight locations spanning El Monte into West Covina, Covina, La Puenta and Pomona. We serve those that do not have regular health insurance. There is a misunderstanding that everyone has premium healthcare and we don’t, so we believe that everyone is entitled to quality health care and we provide that to those that need it most in our communities.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Thank you for sharing that, and yes, that is very correct. That it is an assumption that many people make, but that is definitely not the reality for many people and that’s where health centers step in and really fill that void and that gap. Thank you for serving the community and doing that for them.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: We also like to always know a little bit about the people that we’re interviewing, so could you tell us a little bit about you, your professional journey, how you got to your role, how long you’ve been in this role? I know those were a lot of questions at once, but just if you could tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Cheryl Petersen: Sure. I actually have a career in the nonprofit sector that spans almost three decades now. I started in the museum sector, went into medical research that benefited veterans, have worked with a conservation corps in LA serving underprivileged or underserved youth, and then came to East Valley Community Health Center. I am coming up on my eight year anniversary here. I started right after the Affordable Care Act took effect and we saw a significant increase in patients then. We’re serving about 27,000 patients now.
Cheryl Petersen: I have always been very interested in the wellbeing of staff, that’s been a passion of mine. In 2016, I went back to school for my master’s in it was a business administration, so an MBA, however, the purpose that I went back wasn’t to learn business, because I’ve been a financial leader for almost three decades now. I wanted to learn about leadership, about working with your employees, development, self-management, all of those things, so that was really my focus during my master’s.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Wonderful, thank you. Congratulations on your work anniversary.
Cheryl Petersen: Thank you.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: That is excellent to really see that connection of leadership taking that initiative on the wellbeing of their staff. That’s really what we’re going to be talking about today, especially around, obviously right now, the COVID pandemic and the toll that that has really taken on the health center workforce. You kind of alluded a little bit to this in your introduction, but how have you been able to address that well-being and the mental health of your staff, and are there any specific programs that your health center is using to address it?
Cheryl Petersen: Well, it’s interesting, a lot of this did come up during the pandemic, but I really noticed the need for addressing resilience, which is a very popular word right now, with my team after the 2016 election, because so many of my team were really impacted. I have a lot of first-generation immigrants from Mexico on my team. So we had already put into action some things that would help build their resilience and give them some exercises and tools that allowed them to better respond in times of crisis. We have shared those activities through the clinic.
Cheryl Petersen: If I can continue, right after the state of California shut down, which we just came up on the anniversary of that pivotal event for us, a lot of our teams went home and we pivoted very quickly to telemedicine, but as a federally-qualified health center, we had a role within our community regarding testing, emergency services, not emergency as in emergency room, but essential encounters that still needed to happen.
Cheryl Petersen: I interviewed every member of my team, which is not patient-facing, and every one of them wanted to stay and support the clinical staff that were still on site. Finance is typically a supportive service within an organization, we serve the employees, the patients and our vendors, and it was very important to my team to stay and be part of those that were still serving the community. I met individually with each of them and continued to do so throughout the pandemic. It was really interesting because people would come in to either address something about payroll or to pick up a reimbursement check and they would look at us and say, “We are so happy that you’re here,” because it made them not feel alone in facing the community and what was going on.
Cheryl Petersen: I think it’s very important during this entire time that leaders and frontline managers are very clear about their expectations with their teams that are on the ground, in telemedicine, whatever their role is, so that the employee never has to question if they’re meeting the needs of the organization and not have to carry that pressure. I think sometimes leaders take for granted that their team members know what’s expected of them, and a lot of that was changing as people were working from home, people were doing different roles, we had positions that were pivoting.
Cheryl Petersen: We also really engaged the staff. I think you have to be a lot more thoughtful about how you’re addressing things, so we opened up lines of communication, we worked very closely with the teams. It wasn’t necessarily a specific program, but it was being more thoughtful and mindful about what was going on around us.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Thank you for sharing that. I just love how you said at your health center and all of you in leadership there really just were so proactive in making sure that the resilience of your staff was already in place, because that really helps once you get into a crisis mode and individuals have been triggered and all of those different things come up, you already have those things in place, a foundation that you need to support your staff. Just as you said, communication is just key to all of this, between leadership and staff and the providers in the health center as well.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: That was one of the other questions that I wanted to ask, because at ACU, in the STAR² Center, we do a lot of trainings around employee engagement. We talk about these concepts of building the resilience in your staff, of really making them feel that they’re part of their health center, of that community, that they’re embraced by the staff and the leadership, but at times some of the feedback that we get is like, “Well, how do we even get the leadership buy-in? We just don’t have that in our health center.” I just wanted to ask you, what role do you believe leadership plays in supporting and protecting the well-being and the mental health of their workforce?
Cheryl Petersen: I think it is an essential responsibility of leadership to, how do I say this, to support our staff from the frontline all the way up to the C-suite, that we have to be conscious of everything that’s going on with our team members and make sure that they always know that they are our priority. We can’t do the work we’re doing without our people. It’s not just those that are patient-facing on the front line, everybody has a very important role in that. Leadership, I think across all types of organizations, really needs to be focusing on developing and supporting those team members so that they have the trust, the connection, and the resources provided by their teams.
Cheryl Petersen: We did a couple of really great exercises that I would love to share with you, Michelle, if that’s okay.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, please do.
Cheryl Petersen: Okay. One of them, and we did this actually in December of ’19, so just three months before the pandemic, and there’s a lot of talk about positivity, positive psychology, positive leadership, and we did what’s called the Three Good Things challenge in December at our Pomona location. Basically, the challenge is that every night before you go to bed, you write down three good things that happened to you that down so your brain is forced to focus on the good things that happened during the day, not the weight of some of the negative things, since, as you probably know, our brain has a negative bias. By writing the things down and the positive emotion that they made you feel, it leaves the brain in a positive place before disengaging to go to sleep. So often we spin, as we’re resting for the night, in the things that didn’t go right. It focuses the energy on what did go right. You do this for 14 days.
Cheryl Petersen: I originally heard about this from Duke University, their hospital, and the science supports that participants who did this for a 14-day period were still seeing results of a positive bias at six months, 12 months and 18 months. I actually believe, and my staff has attested that they believe, that this is why they were able to so quickly respond three months later when the pandemic hit, they didn’t immediately go to a negative place. Now it’s not consistent with every single person, but those that are more positive-focused bring those that are maybe a little bit more challenged along and it really made for a great cohesion with the team. It becomes very contagious across the organization, we’re actually doing it across all sites right now.
Cheryl Petersen: Part of the challenge is that when we did it in December of ’19, we had a Christmas tree that was one dimensional and the team would write their good thing down on an ornament and tack it to the tree. Now we’re doing it, as spring is upon us, with a one-dimensional regular tree and we have leaves and pieces of fruit that they’re going to be writing their good thing on. Then it’s at every clinic so that people can share in the positive things that are happening, because it’s not just the pandemic. There’s a lot of social injustice right now, things are going on that really pull the brain to the negative. I think it’s essential that leadership also be mindful of being more positive when engaging with their team. The sky is not always falling, we can do hard things. We have have risen to succeed in managing a pandemic within our communities to the point, I mean, there has been lost, but there’s also been a lot of successes and I think that people need to be reminded to focus on that.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Absolutely. It really is, like you said, it’s that preparation. The brain is like a muscle like anything else, you want to work it, you want to prepare it, so that when these difficult things do happen, and like you said, it’s not just the pandemic, the social injustices we’re seeing, the mental health crisis that we’re seeing across the board all over the world, there’s so many things going on that weigh so heavily on people and it’s not once you step into the workplace you can magically put that aside. It’s just really nice to know that you’re also bringing in some positivity. I also like how you mentioned the importance of leadership and those in the C-suite doing that themselves and really modeling that, because you need to take care of yourself just as much as you take care of anybody else in your staff. You’re right, it’s across the board with every single person in the health center. Here at ACU, we say workforce is the fuel for the health center because that’s what makes it run.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Thank you for sharing that, that was an excellent response and I think will give other individuals who do workforce in health centers some great ideas of what they can do for their staff. As we begin to wrap up, you’ve just offered so much incredible information. As we said, I talked about the COVID pandemic, the way that it affects staff, their mental health, their wellbeing. We use a lot of words, resilience, burnout, compassion fatigue, and we really don’t want them to just become buzzwords, but something that we’re actually working on. As we start going to whatever this new normal may be, do you think that this positive trend is going continue to focus on the employee wellbeing, or do you think that maybe after people may take a step back and go to business as usual?
Cheryl Petersen: That is an interesting question. I don’t think there will ever be business as usual. I think we have really seen … It’s not even just in healthcare. I was reflecting on all of the essential workers that we interact with and have since the onset of the pandemic, going to our grocery store, different people, our garbageman, all of these people that were still here, working every day, they weren’t pausing either. Everybody is tired, I think, but if leadership has learned nothing else, I think it’s the importance of taking care of their employees and you can’t rest on that.
Cheryl Petersen: We’re constantly coming up with new exercises and new takeaways that the team can have. I’m constantly making graphics of remember what things you can control and letting go of the things you can’t, what does acceptance mean. There’s lots of things that you can learn to accept what’s going on around you, you don’t have to agree with it, but it allows a certain amount of release. I don’t think we’re at the end, of not just the pandemic, but like I said, social unrest. I think having all of these things, George Floyd occurring, actually over the last year, the AAPI issues and hate crimes, I think all of those things impact our teams significantly and they don’t always feel they can speak about it. I think the pandemic has shown us the importance of letting our teams talk about what is bothering them. They’re not just here to work and go home.
Cheryl Petersen: By better supporting our teams in their day-to-day work, they can be more fulfilled, they can feel more trusted and connected, and that allows them to go home and be better partners and parents. It doesn’t just stop when they leave for eight hours. How we impact our teams at work affects how they go home and how they live the other 16 hours out of their day. I think it’s very important, and if anybody thinks it should stop, they’re wrong. Our focus should be very squarely on those people that are carrying our mission out into the community.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: I completely agree with you of there is no business as usual and you have to take care of your staff, no matter if things are wonderful or if we’re in a crisis. I just want to say, thank you so much. You’ve offered such wonderful information, I think really excellent ideas that health centers can take and really apply to their workforce, but also, I really do believe that you exemplify what leadership is and what it really means to care about staff. I just want to say thank you for that and thank you so much for being here today.
Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Again, my name is Michelle Fernández Gabilondo. I am the senior training specialist here at ACU in the STAR² Center. Today, we were talking with Cheryl Petersen, chief financial officer at East Valley Community Health Center in Eastern LA County. Thank you so much, Cheryl.
Cheryl Petersen: Thank you, I really appreciated being here.
Closing: Thank you very much for joining us today. We hope today’s conversation provided you with ideas, suggestions, and insights into ways you can approach, adjust to, and mitigate the immediate and long-term changes COVID-19 brought to your health center.
In addition to listening to this reflection on the c-suite’s role in advancing workforce wellness, check out all of our free workforce tools and resources found chcworkforce.org.