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Lorinda Lee – Oak Valley Health

HR chief finds her calling on the front lines

When it comes to addressing the prevailing shortage of doctors and nurses, Lorinda Lee likes to think systemically. Her home province of Ontario has the lowest number of nurses per capita in all of Canada (and registers only 2.32 doctors per 1,000 people), so she’s worried about the bigger picture.

As chief human resources officer at Ontario-based community healthcare organization Oak Valley Health, Lee isn’t content to plug her personnel gaps with workers siphoned from another hospital. She prefers to look at why there’s a system-wide shortage of workers—and problem-solve from there.

“The difficult part is we can’t just snap our fingers and all of a sudden we’ll see 100 or 200 nurses,” Lee says. “I might be robbing Peter to pay Paul, because I could be getting 10 nurses and they’re coming from another hospital down the street. What we want to do is figure out what we can do to help the system overall, because right now, everyone is still short.”

Lorinda Lee | Chief Human Resources Officer | Oak Valley Health

Lorinda Lee | Chief Human Resources Officer | Oak Valley Health

That’s not to say she isn’t doing anything to attract and retain workers for her own organization. From launching wellness and support initiatives to recruiting from the community and sponsoring international healthcare workers to join the company, she’s been busy staffing up and supporting the workers Oak Valley already has.

In recent years, Lee has become an ardent fan of the Johari Window, a group communication concept that calls for disclosure and feedback as a pathway to self-awareness, she says. Since learning about the Window, Lee has been striving to figure out what she doesn’t know and trying to withhold judgment.

“My approach to human resources is to be compassionate,” she says. “I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m aware of my blind spots—I’m open to having my perspective changed.”

Prioritizing worker wellness

Lee has applied that philosophy to Oak Valley’s worker shortfall, trying to understand what’s keeping new workers from joining. One big factor, she says, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put incredible stress on healthcare providers around the world—and has made would-be doctors and nurses think twice about entering the field.

Throughout the pandemic, Lee has done her best to support Oak Valley’s employees. Rather than work remotely, she chose to stay in her office alongside the front-line workers caring for patients. She knew that if she implemented policies preventing staff from working from home, she needed to be there herself, keeping her finger on the pulse of staff morale.

Having put her own health on the line, Lee rolled out initiatives designed to boost employee well-being. For example, Oak Valley began offering compassion fatigue resources, recognizing that health care workers are not only dealing with the health care needs of their patients but also of their own families. In addition, the organization now provides chaplaincy and social-work services to staff; these had previously only been available to patients.

Then there’s “the magic cart.” Piloted by the Oak Valley’s chaplain, the traveling trove of treats contains everything from soaps and lip balms to chocolates, chips and bottled water. It even comes with a gazette full of wellness tips and comics.

“It’s kind of a token of thanks, although of course a bag of chips or a chocolate bar is not going to be enough to say thank you to our front line,” Lee says. “But it is at least something.”

Rising above trauma

Even as she’s trying to lift morale, Lee understands the toll of the job for nurses and doctors. In 2021, she supported the launch of a program to provide trauma debriefings when an upsetting incident happens and grief sessions when patients die.

She’s also led efforts to include Oak Valley in the RISE program (short for Resilience in Stressful Events), a partnership with Johns Hopkins University that offers research-backed peer-to-peer support services for workers at North American hospitals. Select Oak Valley staffers volunteer time outside of their regular shifts to manage a hotline their colleagues can call if they need help or feel overwhelmed (say, due to a traumatic situation or incident).

The hotline is designed to provide “psychological first aid,” as Johns Hopkins puts it, to hospital workers.

Lorinda Lee | Chief Human Resources Officer | Oak Valley Health

“[Johns Hopkins] is supporting us and providing a lot of resources as we are rolling it out,” Lee says. “This program is another resource that we’re implementing as an avenue to provide support to our staff who need it.”

Johns Hopkins has been expanding RISE with the help of the Maryland Patient Safety Center to include more hospitals, and Oak Valley is one beneficiary of that expansion.

Choosing the front lines

Prior to joining Oak Valley, Lee cut her HR teeth in the private sector, working in manufacturing, banking and IT before switching to public-sector work.

“When I first graduated, HR chose me,” says Lee, who earned her B.A. from York University in 1994, followed by seven additional degrees and certifications culminating in a PhD from Walden University in 2017. “And I’ve never left HR. My big turning point was joining the Ontario government in a management role, because I needed labor experience.”

She spent 11 years working in various ministries of the Ontario government before deciding that policy-based work was too distant from the front lines. She wanted to see the human value in what she was doing. So, she chose healthcare, joining Toronto-based University Health Network as its director of human resources in 2013. Lee moved to Humber River Hospital in 2017 before joining Oak Valley in 2020.

She says she “never looked back” after making the move to healthcare—in part because her job at UHN positioned her in an office that looked out onto a cancer ward. Lee would glance out her door and witness patients and their families in very emotional moments, and it drove home to her the importance of her HR choices in people’s lives.

Today, Lee expects to be dealing with the results of COVID-19 for another three to five years. But in the meantime, she’s discussing and brainstorming her way to new HR solutions.

“It’s what keeps me up at night,” she says. “And I don’t know that we have the answer yet. So, I spend a lot of time on what we need to do as an organization to continue to support our people.”

View this feature in the Vol. III 2023 Edition here.

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