How Abbott, Merck, and more health care and biopharma companies took care during COVID

March 12, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
Caring during a crisis.
Courtesy of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare

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Michael Ugwueke got an encouraging reminder of the kind of people and culture he leads last summer, when COVID cases were spiking at his health system.

Ugwueke is CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, which operates six hospitals in the Memphis, Tenn., region.

One week in July, the number of COVID patients at Methodist Le Bonheur reached a new high. Ugwueke and his team weren’t sure how they would staff their COVID units. Many of Methodist Le Bonheur’s nurses not only had been working six days a week to keep up with patient volumes, but were wrestling with the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges.

Nurses often were the only ones with patients as they died, sometimes holding up phones for Facetime sessions with distraught family members. Beyond this emotional burden, nurses carried fears about their own health and the safety of their families at home.

Still, nurse after nurse signed up for extra shifts that week in July. It wasn’t about the overtime pay, Ugwueke says. Those skilled professionals stood to make much more by leaving Methodist Le Bonheur to join temporary nurse staffing agencies for travel assignments. No. It was about caring for the hospital system’s patients in need, Ugwueke says.

“To me, that is a commitment and a level of determination that is just priceless,” he says.

Dedication, sacrifice and cultures of support are what you find on this year’s list of the Best Workplaces in Health Care & Biopharma. These organizations, which include Methodist Le Bonheur, cared for their own people, who in turn served the sick and sought new medicines on the front lines of a deadly pandemic. And since the past year wasn’t just about the COVID crisis, the Best Workplaces in Health Care & Biopharma also navigated the racial justice uprising and economic downturn—finding ways to preserve and even strengthen inclusive cultures.

The Best Workplaces in Health Care & Biopharma ranking is divided into a number of component lists. In the Best Workplaces in Health Care portion of the list, Texas Health Resources ranked first in the large-organization category. It was followed by Northwell Health, an integrated health care network based in New Hyde Park, New York, and Southern Ohio Medical Center. Aledade, which supports primary care physicians with a range of services, ranked first in the small and medium-size category of the Best Workplaces in Health Care. It was followed by travel nursing agency Aya Healthcare and telehealth firm Ro.

Horizon Therapeutics took the top spot in the Biopharma portion of the ranking, followed by Genentech and AbbVie.

Abbott pulls out all the stops to stop the pandemic

Abbott also earned a place on the Best Workplaces in Health Care ranking this year. And while employees of the healthcare technology company weren’t putting their lives on the line to care for COVID patients, Abbott folks have gone above and beyond to contribute vital testing kits amid the COVID pandemic, says Mary Moreland, Abbott’s Executive Vice President of Human Resources.

Mary Moreland-Abbott Executive Vice President of Human Resources.
Mary Moreland, Abbott’s Executive Vice President of Human Resources.
Courtesy of Abbott

Abbott developed one of the first rapid COVID tests, the ID NOW molecular test product that could give results in as few as 15 minutes. Later, the company developed a second test, the BinaxNOW rapid antigen test that only costs $5, doesn’t require additional equipment and can be produced at mass scale. The major developments involved scrambling traditional lines of business and getting employees to pitch in where needed, Mary says. More than 300 people switched roles to help produce tests, she says.

“We were borrowing people from nutrition to help on diagnostics,” Mary says.

Mary points to the flexibility of a particular employee, Andres Garcia Rodriguez, an operations director in Abbott’s Rapid Diagnostics division. Before COVID hit last spring, Garcia Rodriguez was working in Southern California with a big, international move on the horizon.

“He was slated to become a site manager in Norway,” Mary recalls. But as Abbott ramped up a COVID test kit facility in Maine, the company asked Garcia Rodriguez to head there instead.

After helping to get the Maine plant up and running, Garcia Rodriguez returned to Southern California. Almost immediately, the company called him again with another request. This time, to help oversee a new COVID test operation outside of Chicago.

Garcia Rodriguez and Abbott folks in general didn’t complain about their job responsibilities or locations changing, Mary says. The attitude, she says, was “get it done.”

That attitude may have had something to do with the way the company has supported employees in a challenging year. One of the major factors helping employees feel more comfortable about coming into Abbott facilities has been extensive COVID testing. Using Abbott’s own tests and a smartphone app called NAVICA that interfaces with building security systems and employer testing protocols, the company has reassured employees that its facilities are healthy places to work, Mary says.

Abbott also has rolled out benefits such as free tutoring for children of employees and has kept onsite childcare facilities open. Enabling parents to come to work has actually helped ease their minds, given how stressful it can be to juggle tasks while working at home, Mary says: “I can’t tell you how many times working mothers have come up to me, saying ‘I’m so happy to be here.’”

Merck promises job security, and its employee resource groups expand

Pharmaceutical giant Merck also earned a spot on the Best Workplaces in Health Care & Biopharma. Merck, which recently announced it would help produce Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, has taken steps to boost the mental health of employees since the early stages of the pandemic. Merck promised its 70,000 employees across 120 companies a significant measure of job security, says Celeste Warren, vice president of global diversity and head of Merck’s Inclusion Center of Excellence.

“From a financial stability perspective, we started with a statement that we would avoid layoffs due to the pandemic, continue pay during quarantine or sickness and expand emergency COVID access to 401k accounts,” Warren says. “From a healthcare perspective, we quickly announced that the company would cover all diagnosis, testing and treatment of COVID-19 at 100%, as well as non-COVID-related telemedicine at 100%.”

To help employees avoid burn-out, Merck concentrated on listening to its people. It conducted surveys and focus groups to understand their feelings, challenges and needs, Celeste says.

In doing so, Merck took a wise step to increasing employee trust and wellbeing. Overall, organizations that scored best on Great Place to Work’s ranking regularly gathered data on employees’ experience amid the pandemic using our Trust Index survey.

Merck’s efforts to take the pulse of its people paid off with insights, Celeste says.

“It quickly became clear that balancing work and family responsibilities as well as maintaining physical, mental and financial health were the major issues,” she says.

In response, Merck moved onsite exercise and yoga classes online, offered daily mindfulness calls, ran campaigns focused on resilience and burnout, and offered global webcasts by world-class speakers on resilience, men’s mental health and happiness.

Last year also was a time that Merck’s “employee business resource groups” stepped up their activities. For example, the company’s Asia Pacific EBRG focused on xenophobia resulting from anti-Asian sentiments associated with the COVID pandemic. What’s more, Merck Hispanos EBRG members came together in “cafecitos” (small coffee breaks) to share concerns and resources to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the Latino community.

ERGs in some companies struggle to find support. But Merck’s affinity groups have long had the ear of company leaders, Celeste says. “The importance of our EBRGs was amplified in 2020,” she says. “However, they have been an integral part of the company’s global diversity and inclusion strategy for years.”

Desert Oasis cares for members and employees in a difficult year

Another organization on the Best Workplaces in Health Care & Biopharma is Desert Oasis Healthcare, which provides medical care and wellness services to patients in the Coachella Valley and surrounding desert communities of Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California.

One way Desert Oasis has navigated the COVID pandemic is through its “Language of Caring” program, says Brian Hodgkins, executive vice president of clinical operations at the organization. The program trains staff to interact with patients with messages that first come from the heart, then the head, and finally again with the heart. By leading and ending with empathy and related heart-felt sentiments, Desert Oasis nurses, doctors and other clinical staff had a measure of preparation for the trauma brought on by COVID.

“It’s all about caring communication,” Brian says.

Brian and other Desert Oasis leaders brought caring to the company’s employees as well over the past difficult year. For one thing, company leaders searched far and wide to find personal protective equipment (PPE) for clinical staff—equipment such as masks, hospital gowns and gloves. “We had to go to China for our PPE,” Brian recalls.

Desert Oasis also decided not to lay off or furlough any staff members at the outset of COVID last spring. That meant some employees had to change their normal job roles, as nearly 40% of employees were shifted to working from home.

So company leaders got creative. Some employees rededicated much of their time to phone outreach to nearly 30,000 seniors, educating them on COVID avoidance and quarantine safety and asking if they needed help with medications or food services. Other employees obtained their COVID tracing skills to assist in tracing, tracking and managing patients or employees afflicted with the virus.

The organization also needed to quickly pivot to providing primary and specialty care to 60,000 members virtually. Desert Oasis leaders established a goal to set up annual wellness visits virtually with at least 90 percent of their senior members. If employees hit that target in 2020, Brian offered to take a pie in the face.

Desert Oasis employees made him “pay” for that challenge. The pie in the face, video of which was promptly posted on the company intranet site, was well-worth it, Brian says.

The 90 percent level—and the resulting community wellness that came amid a deadly pandemic–represented “an extraordinary effort,” he says. “This organization and the people that make this mission happen never cease to amaze me.”

See the full lists:
The 28 Best Large Workplaces in Health Care
The 25 Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Health Care
The 20 Best Workplaces in Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals

For information from Great Place to Work on how great workplace cultures are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic impacts, click here.

Claire Hastwell is Content Marketing Manager at Great Place to Work.

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