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As staff struggle to cope with the working conditions created by the COVID-19 crisis, nursing leaders may find themselves in new territory as they strive to support them. Eloise Cathcart, MSN, RN, FAAN, director of the nursing administration program at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, has some valuable tips on leadership during the pandemic. She observes that this is a uniquely difficult time: “No nurse manager practicing today has experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic… None of us has managed this degree of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty before so, in a sense, we’re all new nurse managers trying to find our way.”

In a new article for Nursing Management, Cathcart offers four recommendations for leaders on the COVID-19 front lines.

1: Embrace your leadership role, even if you’re uncertain about what to do

Worried that you’re not ready to take on the challenges of leading in the middle of a crisis? As we have often been told, the current situation is “unprecedented.” Keep your focus, and remember that you’re not alone. Remarking that “no one has done this before,” Trust your clinical skills and judgment, Cathcart counsels, but “Don’t hesitate to reach out to a more experienced nurse manager colleague or your director for help.” Be sure to establish a supportive presence, she recommends, and “be visible and available to engage in patient care so that you can assess how individual members of your team are coping.” This will also keep you up to speed on the particular needs of COVID-19 patients and help you to uphold the highest standards of care.

2. Now, more than ever, your comportment is your most important management tool

Healthcare workers are especially vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19. While fear is a natural response, though, it has to be managed and overcome. Like an officer on a battleground, the nursing leader’s behavior and demeanor exerts a powerful influence on the esprit de corps. Be present and connected to your staff, Cathcart says, and approach them with empathy and understanding: “As you strive to meet individuals where they are emotionally, it’s okay to relax your boundaries a bit so you can connect with your staff on a very real and human level. This is a time to give people more room to express their feelings.”

3. Express a vision for the day and acknowledge short-term wins

At the start of each shift, show respect for the courage of your team, and remind them of their duty to keep themselves and their patients safe. Cathcart also notes, “Staying focused on the present and acknowledging the small wins that come from a team working together to do their best can help bolster staff morale.” However, she urges leaders to remain grounded and realistic, warning that “there’s lots of difficult news, but denying reality makes people assume you’re out of touch.”

4. Keep the voice of the clinical nurse in the conversation

Finally, Cathcart emphasizes how important it is for nurses to make their voices heard, and to use this experience to reaffirm their passion for nursing. A leader should recognize that the clinician’s voice is vital: “Intentionally creating opportunities for nurses to speak about their experiences will validate the value and worth of the incredible work they’re doing and lessen the tremendous burden they carry.”

Leaders working on the front lines are in an excellent position to hone their abilities and learn to excel. “Ask yourself,” Cathcart suggests, “how you’ve learned to focus your mind, control your stress, excel under pressure, work through fear, build courage, and adapt to adversity. Knowing these things about yourself can help you develop the spiritual and ethical resilience that will form you into a great leader.”

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