New UChicago Medicine and Biological Sciences Division programming addresses employee well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and time of social unrest

July 8, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with widespread social unrest has resulted in feelings of stress and anxiety across many populations. University of Chicago Medicine (UCM) and the Biological Sciences Division (BSD) have worked quickly to evaluate, expand, and refine programming in order to effectively respond to the evolving needs of the UCMBSD community.

“Many areas across campus have responded to this moment by seeing how COVID-19 has merged with racial trauma,” said Tobias Spears, Director of Diversity Initiatives in the Biological Sciences Division. “This moment has brought up a lot of conversations about things UChicago can do better. A lot of things are still being decided upon, and our programming is still evolving, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Promoting compassion and understanding

UCM launched a Disaster Recovery Program earlier this year to help members of its healthcare community cope with physical and mental stresses related to the pandemic. Additionally, UCM recently joined 35 other healthcare organizations in declaring systemic racism a public health crisis and committing to work together to overcome health disparities and eliminate health inequities in minority communities. UCM’s Urban Health Initiative (UHI) and the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity have also developed and reshaped a number of programs. 

A core component of this initiative is the Compassion Fatigue Resilience Skill-building Series, which is designed to decrease burnout and compassion fatigue as well as increase satisfaction and resilience among UCM healthcare workers. Initially designed as a six-hour in-person training program, UCM quickly revamped the program into a virtual program comprised of a series of 30- and 60-minute sessions.

“Before COVID-19, I never would have thought of delivering this content remotely,” said Joel D. Jackson, Assistant Director of Inclusion and Training in UHI’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. “At the same time, we’ve been forced to think creatively and we’ve been very successful. In the future, I think we’ll be able to keep some things online to better accommodate schedules and learning preferences.”

Related programming is also offered by the BSD’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Other UHI and BSD offerings include:

  • Affinity Group Dialogues (UHI): Participants can explore their experiences based on dynamics of oppression and analyze internalized issues or disadvantages within the historical context of oppression in the US during these 60- to 90-minute sessions.
  • Anti-racism in Practice (BSD): A new offering in the Inclusion Menu, which features conversation starters for 50-minute discussions centered around issues of diversity and inclusion, this session helps people understand what it means to be an anti-racist and how to address some existing barriers.
  • Civil Unrest Debriefs (UHI): Members of the UCM community can come together in a safe space for these 60-minute sessions and discuss the current dynamics related to civil unrest.
  • Racial Healing Circles (UHI): Trained Racial Healing Practitioners facilitate these 120-minute sessions which provide space for UCM and BSD participants to make connections and see each other’s humanity through the sharing of stories. Watch this video to learn more about racial healing circles.

All UHI sessions are available upon request by contacting Joel D. Jackson at For more information on BSD programs, contact Tobias Spears at

Building community and maintaining personal wellness

Additional resources have been developed to help members of the UCM and BSD communities stay connected and supported during these challenging times. The Nourishment through Narrative project is a digital platform where members of the UChicago community are invited to share personal accounts of resilience. People are encouraged to submit stories, letters, and poems related to the current climate in an effort to support one another despite the community’s physical separation. The Graphic Medicine and Social Justice workshops provide an opportunity for faculty to use the ever-expanding genre of graphic medicine to combine words and images into a personal narrative. The next workshop on July 21 will focus on living and working in healthcare through this pandemic.

The UCM Peer Support Line was created to provide rapid access to emotional support for staff and faculty on the front line of the COVID crisis. Relying on the principles of psychological first aid issued by the World Health Organization and the National Center for PTSD, the support line is staffed by volunteer BSD and UCM behavioral health professionals, including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, chaplains, and social workers.  

The BSD’s ongoing wellness programming, coordinated by the Office of Faculty Affairs and the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience, offered daily sessions throughout the spring on a variety of topics such as mindfulness meditation and other reflections and activities. Recordings on self-compassion practices, yoga and dance, antibodies for compassion fatigues, and strategies for building resilience are available on the Zoom Wellness site. A new wellness series, Protecting Your Financial Health During COVID, launched on June 24 and will continue with sessions on Wills, Trusts & Essential Planning Documents on July 15 and Investing During Crisis on July 22. 

“Unfortunately, these topics are very top of mind for people right now, and it’s important for people to feel like they’re prepared,” said Karen Jackson, Director for Faculty Affairs in the BSD. “These sessions were developed in direct response to concerns we heard about from faculty who are thinking about their personal finances.”

To learn more about BSD wellness offerings, visit the Faculty Affairs website.