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Caring for Those Who Care for Us: Supporting Frontline Health Workers in Kenya Through Johnson & Johnson’s Lion Secondment Program

COVID-19 has resulted in a “shadow” mental health pandemic felt by people worldwide, but especially health workers who deliver care.

This World Mental Health Day, I recall my own mental health struggles during the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 lockdowns, my job changed drastically. I went from travelling for work most of the time and working long hours, to being stuck working from home alone. I needed to help others to help take care of myself. When I applied for the Johnson & Johnson Lion Secondment Program, a six-month assignment for senior leaders to take on a virtual strategic advisory role to support a partner on the front lines of health, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was excited to be accepted by South Lake Medical Centre in Naivasha, Kenya, a 2021 Secondment Partner of Johnson & Johnson’s Talent for Good employee engagement program, along with other senior J&J-ers Joep Lambrichts, from Janssen Supply Chain, Switzerland, and Federica Mazzotti, from Janssen Italy. All of us took on senior strategic planning, leadership or capacity building roles; my work specifically focused on supporting Chief Nurse Mark Parkire in strengthening his management and leadership skills, as well as helping him design and implement a customer care and service program. As a meeting and events executive in the pulmonary hypertension division of Janssen, I brought more than 30 years of pharmaceutical experience to this role. I hoped sharing my knowledge, skills, and expertise in team and customer service management would help Mark and SLMC thrive.

SLMC is located in an agricultural region that grows flowers. The 20,000-plus people it serves are predominantly low-wage workers. The 15-year-old health facility was once part of a flower farm, but Chief Executive Officer Liza Kimbo has transformed it into a modern hospital key to improving the region’s health care.

To mark World Mental Health Day on October 10, I spoke with Mark about the mental health of frontline health workers. COVID-19 has resulted in a “shadow” mental health pandemic felt by people worldwide, but especially health workers who deliver care. That’s why, in part, the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation launched the Resilience Collaborative, a global learning community that equips health workers to recover, adapt and grow from challenges like COVID-19.

Liza Kimbo, CEO SLMC: “I agree that while the world focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, as employers we are also having to deal with a parallel silent epidemic of mental health affecting our staff. At SLMC, we would wish to do much more to support the frontline staff, but it has not been easy getting the right resources or time to deliver the much-needed assistance. We are grateful for the mentorship and support that J&J Secondee Ingrid Marti gave to our team during her secondment. It provided the space for our Chief Nurse to reflect on key strategic and management issues and with Ingrid’s guidance, to develop several tools for both employee and customer satisfaction assessments. We will continue with the monitoring and assessment of employees’ working conditions through the surveys to address issues as they arise and will benefit from the resources available in the Resilience Collaborative.”

Read on to learn how Mark takes care of his team who care for patients during a pandemic.

What is your role at SLMC and what does a typical day look like?
I am a practicing nurse and supervise a team of 16 nurses. There is no such thing as a normal day at the hospital. We are extremely busy and care for approximately 100 outpatients per day plus a 35-bed ward and a newly opened surgical room.

World Mental Health Day is October 10. How has the mental health of your nursing staff and patients been amid COVID-19?
SLMC has not been spared from COVID-19: Our first case was reported in July 2020, a 50-year-old male diabetic patient. He was transferred to the county hospital for further treatment.
Unfortunately, one of the SLMC medical staff caring for him became infected. This colleague was deeply upset by the infection, both blaming herself and feeling betrayed by the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). She eventually resigned.

The shortage of PPE was a huge problem across Kenya at that time—Panic attacks, mainly due to fear of COVID-19 infection, were common among staff and patients. The new normal of wearing masks and face shields hid smiles and emotions, and anxiety among providers affected patient care.

People were reluctant to get tested or treated, worried about being transferred to isolation centers and the stigma associated with COVID-19. Lockdowns and expensive hospitalizations hurt household incomes, and schools that closed for a year hurt students.

How are you and SLMC addressing mental health challenges?
At SLMC, our main focus is on preventing infection through strict hand washing, sanitizing and PPE. Management shares mental health messages, and staff members take part in individual and group therapy. Teams take care of each other and counseling sessions for affected patients are available.

What have you learned through these experiences?
The world is a very small place. What affects someone in the Middle East, Western Europe or Africa affects all of us. Poverty is a reality for most households in developing countries. One admission to the hospital for a severe illness could mean financial devastation. COVID has exposed many healthcare systems worldwide as fragile.

What role does the corporate sector have in helping solve growing mental health challenges?
Frontline healthcare workers need training to manage this new challenge. Many people are depressed due to illness, isolation and poverty, and need access to mental health care. The corporate sector can help, among other ways, by financing research on mental health issues related to COVID.

What is your message for World Mental Health Day?
We should protect one another. Accept the world as a global village! The safety of mankind depends on the safety of each one of us.

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The Lion Secondment Program has helped me survive this pandemic, which is far from over. The unique experience of supporting a health care provider like Mark has sparked my own sense of purpose, enabling me to stay mentally healthy and expanding my horizons. I have learned so much from Mark and his team, I discovered a new culture, and for sure have made a new friend.

About the Johnson & Johnson Talent for Good Strategy

The Talent for Good strategy aspires to activate our nearly 140,000 employees from across the globe to grow personally and professionally by applying their time, skills and resources to build healthier communities around the world. From donations to fully immersive assignments with NGO partners, Talent for Good creates opportunities for employees at all stages of their career to play their part in creating positive and meaningful change. Follow #TalentForGood to read other inspiring stories about how J&J employees and partners are collaborating to build a healthier, more equitable world

The Secondment Program, part of the Johnson & Johnson Talent for Good Strategy is a long-term collaboration between Johnson & Johnson, our employees, and our NGO partners to invest in and build the skills of people on the front lines of care across the globe. Through virtual full or part-time assignments of up to six months, Johnson & Johnson employees transfer their knowledge, expertise, and passion to our partners at the heart of delivering care, uniquely give back to society, and change the trajectory of human health. Lion Secondments are modified assignments that pair senior leaders from Johnson & Johnson with their executive peers from our partner networks, offering our partners with strategic advisory support as they grapple with organization-wide challenges.