Andrew Wen, Chloe Valencia and Cameron Boyd

Emotional PPE

Foster MBAs work to protect the mental health of overtaxed healthcare workers

Even as at long last the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of receding in the United States, most of us still do everything possible to avoid exposure to the virus. But what is the mental health toll on those whose job it is to do the exact opposite?

To help address this, a Foster School of Business Service Corps project teamed MBA students with the Emotional PPE Project (EPPE), which is dedicated to connecting healthcare workers with free therapeutic services to manage the grief, burnout and trauma resulting from being on the front lines of treating a pandemic.

Chloe Valencia (MBA 2021), Andrew Wen (MBA 2022) and Cameron Boyd (MBA 2021) conducted research on healthcare workers’ mental health needs and advised on marketing strategies for the non-profit, which now has over 300 licensed therapists volunteering to offer counseling nationwide.

Personal connections

For Valencia, collaborating with EPPE is an ideal complement to her current position as a telehealth coordinator at Providence Health & Services, where she works in addition to her evening studies at Foster. At Providence, one of her responsibilities is to serve as a behavioral health concierge, guiding employees to free therapy options, mirroring the mission of the Service Corps project.

“There’s so much cross-over,” Valencia says. “I think I’m able to contribute (to EPPE) based on some knowledge I have from Providence, and maybe it will go back and forth. There’s things I can apply from work to school and vice-versa.”

We found that what inspired many healthcare workers to move from considering getting therapy to actually finding a therapist was the personal testimonial of someone that they related to.”

-Cameron Boyd

Wen also felt a personal connection to the project. EPPE is based in his hometown of Boston, a city with a large concentration of healthcare workers. Wen conducted market analysis research on how to best reach their target audience. “In Boston, a lot of health care workers travel by subway to get to work,” he explains.

After considering media opportunities on transit, the team determined that subway advertisements are expensive and difficult to measure the impressions they leave. So, they explored alternatives, including potential partnerships with social media influencers.

Peer influence

That kind of advertising can achieve more than just raising awareness of the program. It can also help reduce a major obstacle to healthcare workers seeking treatment. For many in need, there is still a reluctance to pursue therapeutic services. 

“There is definitely still a stigma attached to healthcare workers seeking help.” Valencia says. She heard this directly when interviewing workers in the field. “The person I talked with today said ‘I (feel as if I) should solve my problems by myself rather than talk to someone.’ ”

EPPE is at work on reducing such barriers, including lobbying licensing boards to support rather than potentially penalize healthcare workers who are getting the help they need. 

Each member of the Foster MBA team feels a personal connection to the Emotional PPE mission.

In his work, Boyd found the most effective means of overcoming negative stereotypes is to have healthcare workers hear from their peers: “We found that what inspired many healthcare workers to move from considering getting therapy to actually finding a therapist was the personal testimonial of someone that they related to. Someone being vulnerable enough to share their positive experience with therapy gave others the permission to seek it out for themselves.” 

Don’t call them heroes

What doesn’t help is our new habit of referring to healthcare workers as “heroes.”

While seeming supportive, this lip service can actually be detrimental, says Jean Kung, an EPPE board member who worked closely with the Foster team.  “Consistent reference to heroism can have the effect of making healthcare workers feel that they are expected to go above and beyond their expected duties, despite the effect that this has on them. By definition, if heroism is the norm, the demand is excessive and not sustainable,” she says.

“If an individual healthcare worker is tired, overwhelmed, burning out, or needs support, it could then be viewed that there is ‘something wrong’ with the individual, both by the healthcare worker themself or by the public and/or the employer.” 

Win-win situation

Lea Dunn, an assistant professor of marketing at Foster, is the faculty advisor to the team. She highlights the mutual benefit Service Corps projects provide. Students gain valuable experience, and the non-profits receive in-depth research that otherwise would not be available.

Lea Dunn

“Chloe, Andrew and Cameron learned a tremendous amount of useful skills for the business world.” Dunn says. “They started with the scope of trying to come up with clear marketing and promotion suggestions. To do so, they learned new skills such as survey construction, individual interview skills, analysis, and strategy construction from data… they needed to really understand the scope of the product (and) the intricacies of what drives this type of decision making among the target consumer.”

Even with the pandemic waning, the need is as great as ever. Kung says that as COVID-19 cases decrease, healthcare workers may now have the time to address their own needs, and EPPE will be there to help.

“Experience from prior disasters shows that as the acute stress wanes, healthcare workers will increasingly be able and willing to process the trauma associated with being on the front lines. Thus, long after the pandemic ceases, the need for emotional support and for our directory will persist.”

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It’s a huge task for a fledgling organization staffed by volunteers. That made the Foster’s team contributions all the more significant, and provided Valencia, Wen and Boyd the experience of working in a startup-type environment.

“(EPPE) is a very lean organization and doesn’t have the bandwidth to explore and get in depth on some key strategic initiatives like marketing.” Kung says. “It was extremely value to have the Foster team conduct research into tactics and demographics that could make a big impact given our limited budget. The team’s perspectives and experiences were also helpful in bringing new and unique ideas to EPPE.”

Dunn and Kung agree that the team gained valuable experience that will benefit their careers. But from Boyd’s perspective, what he gained is much more valuable and longer lasting than a line item on a resume: “Emotional PPE is a win-win situation for healthcare workers who need someone to talk to and therapists looking to give back to the medical community that has made countless sacrifices to keep us healthy during the pandemic.

“It’s heartwarming to know that our efforts will help bring awareness to this worthy cause.”

David Fenigsohn David Fenigsohn

David Fenigsohn is a Producer at the Foster School, and a former editor at MSNBC.com. He strives to be one the better poker players in local road races or one the faster runners in a poker game.