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Headshot of Kendra Kuehn Adapting to a Pandemic the APS Way

by Kendra Kuehn, National Adult Protective Services Association

The COVID-19 pandemic has added many new stressors to the day-to-day APS workload. Dr. Bill Kahn, an organizational psychologist at Boston University, highlights that while we cannot get rid of the pandemic-related stressors, we can work to build resilience. Dr. Kahn notes this includes the important work of institutions that help workers feel secure, respected, and appreciated. There are several elements in a successful response to the stress that APS workers are encountering now:  skillful leadership, flexibility, and promoting self-care.

Leading in a Pandemic

The APS programs in Hennepin County, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have both responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with strong leadership as described below. Hennepin County, Minnesota’s Adult Protection Services has worked remotely for over 10 years and already had access to needed technology. Carmen Castaneda, Program Manager for APS, shared that “Technology, however, is only one means to effectively work remotely. Each employee is responsible for managing work and meeting their expected results. Employees need to have well-developed agreements in place to guide them toward team results. Managers and Supervisors need to trust their employees to work independently and yet be available for consultation, back-up and support.”
Carmen notes that “our culture of working remotely changed further during the coronavirus emergency when our department stood up Incident Command [for COVID-19].” Below is a summary of some of those changes.

  • We ask all employees to report in electronically for daily roll call by 9 a.m. If supervisors do not hear from a staff member by 10 a.m., they are to contact the employee to check on their health and welfare.
  • Supervisors send daily counts to administration indicating the number of staff available to handle intake lines and to accept cases for field investigation.
  • We maintain counts of new reports received and cases assigned for investigation and compare them to the number of staff available for work.
  • We have put into place a Continuity of Operations Plan that includes back-up staff who can be re-assigned to assist with Adult Protection investigations, which are deemed Priority 1 for ongoing operation.
  • Hennepin County issued a directive on Monday, March 30, suspending all face-to-face contact between APS employees and clients unless there is no other way to meet a vulnerable adult’s critical health and safety needs.
  • Hennepin County issued Personal Protective Equipment kits for staff use in field investigations. Personal protective equipment (PPE) kits include surgical masks, face shields, glasses, nitrile gloves, sanitizing spray, and wet wipes.
  • Hennepin County issued a letter to each APS employee to carry with them noting that they are "essential" employees and that some of their work must be done in person in order to maintain the health and well-being of our residents. The letters include phone numbers that concerned citizens or law enforcement can call to verify the employee’s identity.

Pennsylvania’s Adult Protective Services Director, Laura Dietz, has started a weekly quiz covering a variety of topics. "Staff have really responded enthusiastically to the quiz," says Laura. “I’ve promised every one of the winners that they will receive certificates for their doors once everyone returns to the office.”  Because staff want to be sure Laura herself can participate, the creation of the quiz now falls to whoever won the previous week.
To keep morale and knowledge up, Laura also sends regular articles to her team ranging from wellness ideas to innovations for their clients, adults ages 18 – 59 with disabilities. Recently she shared an article about a college student developing fabric masks with a see-through section to allow for lip reading.

Flexibility: Working Remotely

Just as there are recommendations around leadership practices, there are many recommendations around ways that we can be flexible during these unprecedented times. Working from home is one way that many APS programs are being flexible. But, if you’re not in the habit of working from home, it can be a challenge.

Three top recommendations for adjusting to working remotely include 1) creating a workday schedule with a start and end, 2) building in some form of physical exercise or movement, and 3) setting routine check-ins with co-workers. NAPSA’s work-from-home Executive Director, Lori Delagrammatikas, notes that people should understand their own work style and how that might impact the change in environment. For example, if you are a “workaholic” you will want to ensure you take breaks and build boundaries to leave work behind at the end of the day. Consider setting reminders for breaks or creating a routine like going for a walk to mark the end of the day. Conversely, Lori notes that if you are easily distracted you may want to create a workspace free from distractions, create set work hours, and be as firm as possible with others about no interruptions during that time. If you have younger children, she suggested considering including “mommy/daddy breaks” in the day to meet their needs with clear signals on when that break is over.
Andy Capehart with the APS Technical Assistance Resource Center agrees that knowing your work style is critical. Andy currently works from home full-time. He recommends having a dedicated workspace, if possible. If your workspace has a door, closing the door or just shutting down the computer at the end of the day can help signal that boundary. Keeping the same routine may help as well including starting work, ending work, and eating lunch at the same time you would in the office.
Staff should also have access to any technology needed whether that is screen sharing, video conferencing, or special technology that is specific to areas such as intake. There are many different applications available both for working as a team and for outreach. The National Council of Aging Organizations has created an info sheet on the most popular applications with pros and cons. Be aware that not all services meet HIPAA requirements or other confidentiality standards. Be sure to follow your agency’s guidelines and only use approved software or hardware. Adapting to a remote environment can be challenging but this resilience will carry on past the current emergency.
Finally, it is vitally important that all of us be sure to practice self-care during this time. As they say during the safety demonstration on the airplane: “You need to put on your own oxygen mask first before trying to help others.”  Make time to put on your own “face mask” whether this is through mindfulness and self-compassion, exercise, or just coloring!

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