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Heartbeats & Hiccups: Serving those who serve

Stanford Medicine human resources leaders speak to their experiences in the military and their trajectory to medicine.

Heartbeats and Hiccups: From passions to pivots, a conversation about the defining moments that shape our careers

Two of the top human resources officers at Stanford Medicine are military veterans. Kevin Moody, associate dean for human resources at the School of Medicine, served in the Marine Corps as an air traffic control operations officer from 1997 to 2001 and remained a reservist until 2004, available for national emergencies. Marcie Atchison, JD, senior vice president and chief of human resources at Stanford Medicine Children's Health, managed Air Force personnel from 1989 to 1993, serving during Operation Desert Storm.

As a child, Atchison often accompanied her mother to work at a skilled nursing facility, where she volunteered as a candy striper. Her first HR job was in skilled nursing, and she has mostly worked in health care since. Moody has spent his career at major academic institutions, including Harvard and Emory, though his job at Stanford Medicine is his first foray into medicine. I spoke with the two Stanford Medicine leaders about their approach to leading an academic institution and, as they put it, "serving those who serve."

You both have mentioned concerns about employee fatigue and mental health. What are the main factors that have led to a rise in mental health problems and burnout?

Moody: The first is overwhelming work demands. While technology has enhanced and improved our lives, it's created this 24-hour, 7-day-a-week culture. The second is that the pandemic introduced this notion of work-life integration, causing our personal lives and work lives to crash. People were homeschooling their children and had elder care responsibilities. Those societal issues aren't going away, and the personal and professional demands on our time and other resources are not likely to subside. We must learn to address these issues at the emotional level instead of simply focusing on the stimulus.

We also have a shortage of health care providers. The pandemic will continue to affect the demand for health care, particularly as people of the baby boomer generation age.

Atchison: We treat children with the most complex medical and social conditions that impact health. We already care for very ill patients, but the severity has increased. COVID-19 complicated people's health conditions, and people often avoided going to their physicians during the pandemic, so conditions went untreated.

The non-visitation policy during the pandemic caused a lot of caregiver-family conflict, too, and that was a huge point of contention that health care employees never had to deal with before.

When someone comes to you with signs of burnout, how do you address that? Are there specific steps you can take?

Atchison: When we have moments that are really emotional and our employees are distressed, we make sure they have the time they need to recover. In instances where the care teams need support, we bring in our resiliency team to help health care workers debrief, as well as use our Employee Assistance Program, which can help connect employees with mental health and wellbeing resources.

Moody: The question is, how do we identify some of those symptoms of burnout early so we can start intervention sooner? Some of it involves our managers and leaders. We talk about people being "on" all the time. We have to create boundaries.

You are both advocates for diversity, inclusion and equity. What steps are you taking now to help promote better equity in access and care for patients?

Atchison: Creating better access to equitable health care for our patients and community continues to be a diversity, equity and inclusion priority. For example, we recently launched our We Ask Because We Care initiative, in which we ask the patient to self-identify, on a voluntary basis, their race and ethnicity. We realized this could help us better understand our patient population and their diverse health care needs. This initiative will help inform and direct our health equity approaches for patients and families. We will soon expand it by including patient gender identity and sexual orientation to continue building foundations for equitable and inclusive healthcare practices.

Moody: We often treat diversity, equity and inclusion as if they are the same things. In doing so, we focus heavily on increasing diversity and not enough on creating equitable and inclusive environments for everyone. Assume that we can increase diversity within our organization to an optimal level. Then what? If people don't feel they can be their full and authentic selves, then focusing on increasing diversity, in and of itself, has little purpose.

We often focus on the metrics -- what percentage of our staff is under-represented -- but that in no way speaks to what they experience in our environment. Inclusion is about what we do institutionally to make them feel that they belong and can fully participate. I don't want our mandate to involve just increasing diversity. Let's make sure we focus on building equitable systems. A lot of the work Marcie and I do is focused on equity.

Atchison: These programs help us to know our patients and our community better, provide interpreter services and support programs that improve quality of care.

Photo courtesy of Todd Holland

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