Speaker’s Corner: Featuring Catherine Gordon, Director, People & Culture at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice

Tell me about the Canuck Place Children’s Hospital…

Canuck Place Children’s Hospice first opened its doors in November 1995 to become North America’s first free-standing children’s hospice.  We now have two hospices in provincial locations in Vancouver and Abbotsford and approximately 200 staff.   We are recognized globally in the field of pediatric palliative care by providing leadership in improving pediatric palliative care regionally, nationally and internationally through collaboration, education and research. 

We are the provider of pediatric palliative care for approximately 813 children and families across BC & Yukon who present with over 190 conditions and diseases. Canuck Place programs are built around supporting life in aspects of play, social interaction, school, healthy development, pain management, and spending time with family and friends while providing advanced nursing and medical care for an unknown duration.   

Canuck Place looks after families for the span of the child’s remaining life – this could be hours from the time of diagnosis or through to the age of 19.  The care we deliver includes medical respite, pain and symptom management, art, music, and recreation therapy, end-of-life care, and grief, loss and bereavement counselling.  All at no cost to families, we rely on the generosity of our donors to continue this important work.  Our goal is to reach every family caring for a seriously ill child in BC & Yukon who needs help – especially those who are isolated and hidden. 

The HR industry is vast, what are the challenges that most affect your business? Are you engaging in any kind of problem solving?   

It can be difficult as a non-profit in healthcare to compete against all the other sectors.  However, due to our community work environment, we have employees who have been with us since we opened, and we often celebrate retirements.  The care and support we provide to our children and families is reflected in how we look after our staff. 

Sharing how we are an exceptional employer is one of my team’s strategic objectives this year.  We will be revamping our website and careers page in addition to implementing a new Applicant Tracking System to make the hiring experience more accessible and positive for our candidates.  As a non-profit in healthcare the majority of our staff are women, sector wide we need to demonstrate what a rewarding career path this is for everyone. 

We have various teams including Clinical, Counselling, Communications, Marketing & Events, Development (Fundraising), Facilities, Finance, Food Services, Housekeeping, I.T., People & Culture, Physicians, Recreation and Volunteers so we need to communicate the variety of roles available.  On day one of your employment based on eligibility, your benefits start and are 100% employer paid.  We offer generous time off, pension, flexible working options and substantial opportunities for learning and growth.  We know that it is an employee’s market and if you choose us, we want to invest in you.   

Challenges that are unique to us are the requirements for specialized clinical roles as we ask for pediatric, palliative experience.  This does make it more difficult to find those individuals but they are worth the wait!  Our reputation in the sector serves us well and our staff are strong advocates on our behalf in the community. 

The COVID-19 and the pandemic has mandated change in the way we go about business and operations. How has this time influenced you? What are the trends you see within the sector?  

Prior to COVID-19, everyone worked from a physical location.  Overnight we transitioned to whoever was able to do so based on the role to work from home.  Recognizing that due to physical distancing hospice space was of premium and direct patient care roles were the priority.  Our Head of Technology started the week before and it is an enormous credit to him that it was such a seamless transition.  Now we have a hybrid workplace, have empowered individuals to work remotely and/or from a physical location dependent on their role. 

The pandemic has given us an even greater appreciation of our staff.  From our clinical team constantly having to navigate an evolving healthcare landscape, commitment of our fundraising team who shifted our in-person events to virtual and continue to engage our donors in new ways. The Counselling, Recreation and Volunteer Support teams who transitioned their programs online to continue meet our needs.  Facilities and Housekeeping who maintain our locations and Food Services providing nourishment to our families and staff.  Our work community bonded together to ensure children and families are always first in everything we do.   

We really focused on asking for feedback and auctioning it.  As a result, we offer a variety of flexible working options including variable start and end times, a condensed working schedule and self-scheduling for shift workers.  We have a variety of leave available for caregivers and are focused on ensuring that our employees know that we care about them as people. 

The trends I am seeing relate to attraction and retention to be more open and curious to understand what employees really want in an employer with an increased focus on flexible working, mental health and diversity and inclusion.   

Could you share with us the points of discussion (the input that you provided) during the panel(s) at the Hacking HR 2022? 

What I learned during the pandemic around addressing mental health in the workplace was that everyone is different and has unique needs.  Some people thrived at home while for others who are more extroverted it was more challenging and isolating.  Being able to offer the choice where possible to permit people to continue to work in an office environment or from home was important to empower them.  Clear, consistent communication is key in a vacuum of information people will go to the worst case scenarios.  Strong personal and professional relationships can be maintained and built virtually and in person, interactions are even more special when they do not happen regularly.  Rest is crucial even if you cannot travel anywhere, take the time off anyway and disconnect from work.   

Addressing mental health in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility. We all need to prioritize our own physical and mental health and ensure we are looking after ourselves.  We are all accountable for creating a culture of safety, respect and kindness.  You don’t know what is happening for anyone at any given time so always be kind. Prioritizing regular check- ins regardless of workload is crucial to build trust and connection.  Not jumping straight into work but asking how teams are doing, listening and sharing authentically yourself when appropriate means people will come forward to access support when they need to. 

Managers can demonstrate leadership by attending any sessions related to supporting mental health, showing it is a priority, in addition to taking time away to look after themselves which gives others permission to do the same. Wellness programs promoted by our Wellness Committee – encourage staff to spend time in nature, walking and offer nutrition workshops.  Financial sustainability is also part of wellness and Credit Counselling webinars continue to be appreciated.  We also implemented COVID General Leave in March 2020 to provide 14 days paid for self-isolation, personal sickness and caring for others to alleviate stress. 

Consistent communication is key on the importance of mental health and taking actions to prove it.  Our focus is to normalize the conversation around mental health so it is treated exactly the same way as physical health.  We have taken a proactive approach, reducing isolation by providing opportunities for Social connection- virtual holiday parties, water cooler Fridays, a Book club, and regular “crafting sessions” to make cards facilitated by a volunteer that partners, kids and pets can also attend.  We dedicated 15 hours mandatory hours annually dedicated to wellness – no explanation required.  Employees let us know they have used them to take time off for the meaningful anniversary for passing of loved ones, pets etc. 

We are implementing the National Standard of Psychological health and safety, regularly remind staff about our Employee and Family Assistance Program, in addition we offer monthly group counselling sessions on Cumulative stress and confidential 1:1 support if needed.  Beyond our extended health benefits, we also have a Health and Wellness account so staff can choose where to spend that money.  We ran a pilot program through Healium, which is a free app, focused on visual meditation and had virtual reality headsets at each physical location.   

In terms of training and development, we have been part of Mindful Employer since 2019, which provides training resources for in-house champions to present to staff.  In January, we launched Mindful Leader with the first cohort of 25 Managers to support them to take a positive mental health approach to conflict resolution, communication, performance management etc.  On completion of the six-module program, they will receive a certification that will form part of their ongoing career development. In October, staff can also complete the Mental First Aid Course. 

As part of our culture of recognition and appreciation, we launched a Calendar of Care.  This means that every role/team has a day designated to recognizing and appreciating what they do: 

  • Care for children and families (healthcare/recreational roles) 
  • Care for staff, volunteers and donors 
  • Care for physical work locations (housekeeping/facilities) 

As a leader, what are the factors both professional and personal that drive you? What keeps you going? 

In unprecedented challenging times being part of an organization that does such meaningful work and knowing that it has such an impact on those we support drives me personally and professionally.  Having such committed, caring, intelligent and creative colleagues inspires me to be my best and to continue to strive to look for ways to improve and meet the needs of our staff. 

In your opinion, do digital events give you a similar level of feedback/result vis-à-vis the live versions? What would you say were the biggest pros and cons of both formats? Which do you prefer?  

I think digital events are more inclusive.  Introverts or those who need more time to reflect can share via chat or privately, which they may never feel comfortable doing in an in person, group setting.  It also means that caregivers can attend and it can provide a great opportunity to connect as you meet people’s children and pets.  Being able to record sessions and share so they can be viewed on demand is also a major benefit particularly when you work for a 24/7 organization.  However, for networking, social interaction and connection in person tends to fulfil that purpose better. 

What is your take on in-person events? Do you prefer in-person events as compared to hybrid or virtual? How soon do you think in-person events would return? 

It depends on the event; with virtual you can attend without having to factor in travel time there and back.  It also means you can reach a wider audience as you are not restricted by location.  In person meets you can focus, be less distracted, technology is not a barrier and you are in the moment.  

Finally, do you have a favourite mocktail or drink? We’d be delighted to know. 

I am more coffee than blood at this point, especially as I am not a morning person!  I also enjoy a red wine or a spicy jalapeno margarita. 

About Catherine: Originally, from Northern Ireland, Catherine worked in London, UK for eight years before immigrating to Vancouver, BC in 2005.  She has experience in the recruitment, legal, technology, regulatory, environmental, healthcare and non-profit sectors, the latter being her passion.  Since 2018, she has been the Director, People and Culture at internationally recognized Canuck Place Children’s Hospice; she supports all aspects of HR for 200 staff across BC. A life-long learner Catherine holds the following certifications: Strategic HR Practices, Employer Brand Strategist, Advanced Employment Supports Specialty, Leadership and Inclusion and Antiracism. In addition to “Leading a Mentally Healthy Workplace”, CPHR Workplace Mental Health, Mental Health First Aid Certificate and a proud in-house Champion of Mindful Employer. She is currently enrolled in the following programs: Disability Management Practitioner, Maslow Executive Leadership Coaching and Mindful Leader.  She is a proud member of Hacking HR having participated in the first cohort of their GROW program.  

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