Staff Support Program Helps UPMC Employees Manage COVID-19 Stress

By: Maura Scrabis

Health care professionals are working overtime to help their patients deal with the mental and physical toll of a global pandemic in addition to a range of illnesses. Because of this, the professionals themselves may neglect to deal with their own mounting stress.

For UPMC employees, the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) As Soon As Possible (ASAP) Staff Support Program is available to help. The program was introduced at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital (WPH) in 2012 as a response to what is known as the “second victim phenomenon.”

Coined by Johns Hopkins University physician Dr. Albert Wu, this concept refers to the deeper impact on health care professionals following adverse events at work.

“Most attention is on our patients and their families, and rightfully so, after a critical incident or adverse event. Before the creation of this program, there was little designed to support our colleagues in the health care profession,” explained Jeffrey Magill, co-coordinator for the CISM ASAP Staff Support Program at WPH.

When left unsupported, there is risk for high rates of burnout, compassion fatigue and individuals choosing to leave their profession. Additionally, some people may turn to maladaptive coping strategies like substance use and abuse. Research shows that there is even an increased risk for suicide, Magill added.


Since the program began, it has since become standardized throughout various UPMC hospitals, providing health care workers with colleague-to-colleague support in a way that allows them to feel comfortable. Currently, 21 hospitals have CISM ASAP Staff Support teams, and other hospitals’ programs are in various stages of development.

Throughout all hospitals, the hotline received 31 calls between March 15 and June 30 of this year. While this number was equivalent to last year’s calls in the same time period, the overall amount of support the teams provided increased due to the many changes brought about by the pandemic. The CISM ASAP Staff Support Team coordinators worked with their hospital’s department managers to identify adverse situations to respond to before staff even had the chance to call the hotline.

“At UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, we saw a substantial increase in support, not necessarily through just the hotline, but more so us being proactive. In the four months of March, April, May and June, we provided 97.5 hours of support to our colleagues,” said Magill.

The complications of dealing with a global pandemic in addition to the rapidly changing situations in the individual hospitals pushed many people outside their comfort zones.

“We’re not waiting until staff choose to pick up the phone to call the hotline to ask for support. Our coordinators are doing a great job of rounding the units at our hospitals, especially those that are treating COVID-19 positive patients, to offer that support. We’re trying to be more present and more transparent in our offerings of assistance.”

Coordinators also continue to meet every month to discuss progress and plans as part of the UPMC CISM ASAP Staff Support Advisory Committee.

UPMC hospitals are continuing to come up with creative solutions to support their teams during this time of increased stress and anxiety. In addition to virtual support, hospitals have passed out tip sheets, held webinars, included a tab full of information on UPMC’s intranet and continued to direct staff to the CISM ASAP hotline, all in an effort to make sure that those working so hard to protect the greater community have as much support as they need.