Chamber, healthcare system use awareness campaigns aimed at kindness toward employees

By: - March 22, 2022 5:00 pm

Please Be Kind poster logo from the Billings Chamber of Commerce (Graphic provided by Visit Billings).

Sandy Morse, the chief nursing officer for Billings Clinic, can give you the reason Montana’s largest healthcare organization has put up banners and posters urging visitors and patients to remember to be kind to frontline healthcare workers.

“Hurting people hurt people,” she said.

And with the long hold of COVID-19 even as it lingers through successive variants, there’s been a lot of hurt throughout Montana communities and beyond. It’s not just the disease, it’s the politics and the isolation, said Billings Clinic Foundation President Jim Duncan. 

That has prompted two of the organizations in Billings, Montana’s largest city, to adopt campaigns at being kinder and more courteous to workers. The Billings Clinic put up banners and signs last fall, and removed them to begin another round of messaging, urging patients and visitors to remember that “we’re all in this together.” 

Morse and Duncan said that their message has shifted because with the different COVID variants, the pandemic may switch from overcoming it to living with it – and that means the message has to shift.

Meanwhile, the Billings Chamber of Commerce started a “Please Be Kind” campaign that has been adopted, modified and implemented in other places around the state like Helena. John Brewer, chief executive of the Billings Chamber, explained the posters and stickers, which say, “Please be kind to those who are serving you in our establishment.” He said it isn’t just about extending common courtesy, it’s also about keeping employees.

As a record number of people across Montana and the nation have left jobs, workers and employees are at a premium. Brewer said business owners who use these materials are finding that it is a way of supporting their employees, letting them know they have their backs if a customer becomes belligerent or unruly. Anecdotally, he continues to hear of employees leaving jobs, especially in the service industry, because of customers who are out of control. With Billings having a sizable number of hospitality and service industries, losing a good workforce could become a serious economic impediment.

Brewer said the idea for the materials came from Rhode Island where a chamber there had produced posters touting kindness. Billings reached out and got those materials, which it modified and has put out so that others could print off and make their own messaging.

The first run of posters went so quickly that the Chamber is on the second run. 

To find out more about the Billings Chamber of Commerce’s “Be Kind” campaign, or to get the toolkit, please go to:

“It’s a shame that we have to remind people to be kind, but this isn’t a Billings problem or a business problem, it’s everywhere,” Brewer said. 

A survey of Chamber members revealed that 84 percent reported a workforce shortage as Billings reported a 1.7 percent unemployment rate, putting a premium on good employees. Brewer said some businesses have had to cut back hours or close due to shortages. And since they’ve placed the “Be Kind” materials on the website, the Chamber has seen a 224 percent increase in web traffic.

“In these cases, the customer may not always be right,” Brewer said. “We’ve had very strong feedback they’ve been utilized. Has someone been nicer when walking into a restaurant? I don’t know. Did an employee stay at a job longer? I don’t know that. But we have to try to support our people.”

As part of the “Be Kind Campaign,” there are also poster for employee break rooms that encourage and list mental health resources to help workers who may be struggling.

“That’s a big part of staff retention: Do they feel supported,” Brewer said. 

Morse said often frontline healthcare workers have gotten the brunt of patients’ frustration as they’ve been required to be masked or had their temperatures taken when they walk into one of the locations.

“These signs reminded folks that they weren’t creating this political divide in terms of masks, vaccines, temperature checks or other safety requirements,” Morse said. 

“It also tells folks and puts them on notice that we support good public health measures,” Duncan said.

The signs were first put up as the delta variant surged in Montana and the hospital was at 200 percent capacity in its critical care units.

“There’s not one episode which caused it, but our staff were working with people who just kept coming at them,” Morse said.

The Billings Clinic related one story of an emergency room doctor who told a patient they tested positive for COVID. The woman told the doctor that “it’s not real” and she refused to put a mask on.

“We have to continue to share what we know and advocate,” she said. “COVID is not going away, so that means we have to learn to live with it and treat people kindly.”

She said it’s understandable for the frustration and confusion. Without larger public health mandates, like masking in public, Morse said patients and visitors see grocery stores or other public places that have no masks and no mandates, but then come to the clinic where those protocols are mandated. 

“There are two worlds and we see such sick patients,” Morse said. 

Duncan also sees the “aggressive behavior” as part of a larger trend that was beginning prior to COVID. Even pre-pandemic, there were an increasing number of patients who were lashing out against workers, especially in places like the emergency department. The Billings Clinic now pays for several uniformed Billings Police officers who work on campus, helping to alleviate security or safety problems. 

Now, the Clinic is working to train staff in de-escalation techniques. 

As the pandemic continues, Morse said the toll isn’t just evident in the number of patients acting aggressively, it’s also manifesting itself in the staff.

“We have nurses that didn’t see a death,” Morse said. “Now they see it weekly.”

Duncan characterizes the situation as a handful of visitors, not something that happens with every person.

“The vast, vast, vast majority have been collaborative, and it has been hard because family members and friends don’t get to be with loved ones and that’s so hard,” Duncan said.

The message is often simple and both Morse and Duncan said it’s been easier for staff to communicate once they’ve been given training and feel supported.

“We just tell people you have to get a mask or you have to leave,” Morse said. 

She said they’ve trained nurses to “reset” with patients, asking them not to speak rudely or telling them that they’re going to leave a room for a moment, come back, and restart a conversation.

“People come here to heal and we’re trying to create a healthy environment for them to do so, but you have to make sure it’s one that’s respectful and safe,” Duncan said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.