The challenges and opportunities of leading healthcare HR post-COVID

Undoubtedly, the healthcare industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. And longtime healthcare HR exec William Pryor had a front-row seat for the experience.

However, Pryor—the recently appointed executive vice president and CHRO of the New York-based Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth)—and his HR colleagues didn’t just witness the impact of the crisis on their workforce; they walked beside employees to confront the challenges, which he says permanently transformed his approach to HR leadership.

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Pryor is leveraging that experience and his deep expertise in healthcare HR—in the last 30 years, he has led HR in large healthcare settings like Catholic Health, Cape Fear Valley Health System and Mercy Health—to drive talent and business success for the 13,000-member workforce of WMCHealth. He recently shared with HRE how the network, which is home to nine hospitals on seven campuses in New York’s Hudson Valley, is deepening its commitment to employee listening and innovating in employee wellness—and how the mission-driven work personally resonates with him.

“I’m really happy to be at WMCHealth,” he says about the role he took on in October. “It’s been everything I thought it would be and better.”

HRE: You’ve spent the bulk of your career in healthcare HR. What about this industry engages your passion for HR?

Pryor: Most HR people, like myself, like working with people; that’s the first premise. And then when you look at HR and healthcare, you’re working with people who are taking care of people.

William Pryor, WMCHealth
William Pryor, WMCHealth

Earlier in my career, I was working in a non-healthcare setting, and it was certainly very enjoyable and exciting. And I’ve had the opportunity to go elsewhere or get out of the [healthcare] field, but I like it because, at the end of the day, you see that you’ve taken care of people—neighbors, friends, folks in the community. That connection is there.

HRE: You were in the healthcare HR space during COVID. How did that shape your mindset about HR’s ability to strategically influence an organization?

Pryor: COVID meant throw out the playbook; it is not business as usual. What worked in terms of the way you would take care of the staff—it was different. You needed to listen.

Listening to people, listening to your staff, rounding and talking to not just patients but associates at all hours of the day and night really helped. COVID was a uniquely stressful, scary, all-at-once kind of event that, in healthcare, was literally devastating to staff—whether it was a nurse or the housekeeper. We offered hotels for [workers] after they’d worked several shifts and they were afraid to go home because they thought they might have been exposed.

Another theme that came out of COVID was that people were burned out, stressed out and needed to use mental health resources in a different way. At least in my experience, some of the stigma has been removed; everyone was stressed, everyone felt terrible and everyone needed to talk to someone.

HRE: How are you planning to confront ongoing employee stress and burnout at WMCHealth?

Pryor: Like other organizations, WMCHealth has been looking at employees more holistically. Over a period of time, we’ve developed five pillars to help us really focus on the entire person: Food—are people eating well, taking care of themselves? Physical activity. Financial literacy. Mental and emotional wellbeing. And social awareness.

The mental and emotional wellbeing pillar has really played a large role. From WMCHealth’s perspective, as people are coming out of COVID, yes, it’s gotten better, but there are still vestiges of stress.

The stigma of calling someone or seeing a counselor is no longer what it was pre-COVID; now, people are looking for that [employer support]. I’m happy to say we really do a good job of that here and we really try to approach it at whatever level employees need; some people want to do [therapy] online, or they can take classes, talk to an individual anonymously. We’ve been able to reach out to people at their level, with what’s going on with their lives.

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The other component too is being more attuned to your community. We’re in Western New York, and we’ve got a very diverse workforce as well as patient base, so we have to be attuned to that. It’s really a holistic approach that integrates the associates with their patients and with their community. For us, [wellness] is very personal.

Click here to read more Insights from a CHRO interviews.

HRE: And what role is that focus on wellness playing in your overarching recruiting strategy?

Pryor: Recruitment and retention work really consistently [together]. We’re training our leaders in ways that when they talk about the work at WMCHealth, they can show how it connects to the community. There’s typically a question [from job seekers] about “How did you get through COVID?” and they’re able to say, “Here’s what we did.” And that helps with recruiting because people who want to work at WMCHealth want to know that we’re going to take care of them, just as they take care of the patients. That was there before COVID but it’s more heightened now. People are not going to just go to a job and clock in—they want to know how they’re going to interact with their peers, what opportunities they have.

We’re not perfect but as we’re recruiting people, we’re able to say, “This is what we’re doing now [for employee wellness],” and we’re seeing them say, “That is different than what I’ve seen in other places.” And we can show them that if they join us, they can provide feedback that will make it even better.

HRE: What are the biggest healthcare HR challenges today, particularly around recruiting and retention?

Pryor: The market is still very tight, and certainly nurses are at a premium. We’re blessed that we have a medical college so we are able to build a nice residential training experience. We also provide a breadth and depth of services, and that helps because some people coming out of nursing or medical school want to get experience with a wide variety of medical issues, and we’re able to do that.

Nationally, everyone talks about healthcare recruiting being about physicians, nurses, clinicians. That is true, but it’s also IT folks, folks in the business office, HR, folks working remotely. As we recruit, we are looking to approach people at their interest level—what they’re thinking they want to do at the organization, and how that can work. So, we can’t have a one-size-fits-all [approach]. When we offer a job, there are some guidelines to that but we have much more flexibility than in the past.

There’s no question that pay is still critical but, in addition, people want a better work/life balance. If pay is similar, they may go with what they perceive to be the better work/life experience. That’s what our team and leaders are working on, and it’s ongoing; as we’re rounding, we’re talking to people. We want to make our experience the best we can make it because people will want to stay and will want to recruit others.

HRE: How would you assess the organizational culture at WMCHealth?

Pryor: I’ve been very happy to report that employees I’ve been able to interact with at every level are focused on the patients. They’re not here to check the box; they do amazing things.

And our workforce is very diverse. It represents the New York metropolitan area as well as other areas and, as a result, people are attuned to the needs in the community. I was really pleasantly surprised to see that. They’re plugged into the community in a way where they know certain issues are prevalent and they’re able to have responses when patients come in.

For us, the culture work we’ve been doing is making sure that—because we’ve grown so rapidly—we’re able to make that culture consistent within our large network.

HRE: What has most influenced who you are as an HR leader?

Pryor: First, in terms of influence, is my family, my parents. My dad—he passed away a few years ago—was a judge. As a judge, you tend to hear and see points of view that are different. And it was fascinating to see how he would resolve those issues. He gave me that experience of listening to different viewpoints, which you need in HR for sure. And my mother, being an educator, made sure that education was so important for me and my brother. That was the underpinning.

Now, I would say it’s that work/life balance. I was a D1 athlete back in the day and I continue to exercise frequently. I travel. There’s also a spiritual component. As I look at my own life, that’s why what we’re trying to do [at WMCHealth] resonates. COVID was really personally difficult like it was for everyone. My daughter was graduating from college and that was virtual; it was just unheard of, things like that. So, to build the resiliency to keep going, there were things I had to rethink in my life—and that’s where that spiritualness came from.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].