For Heather Gates, steering one of Connecticut’s largest behavioral health care providers through the COVID-19 pandemic has meant confronting increased need with diminished funding. The key to facing those challenges? Flexibility and compassion.
“It’s been more crucial than ever to lead with compassion, because everybody is experiencing more stress,” said Gates, the president and CEO of Community Health Resources, which operates a wide range of programs for adults and children impacted by mental illness, substance use disorder or trauma.
The organization, which has offices throughout central and eastern Connecticut, runs a range of services including residential programs, mobile crisis teams, methadone clinics, therapeutic foster care, and a project that provides methadone treatment in six Connecticut prisons.
Gates is the winner of The Hartford Courant Top Workplaces 2021 award for leadership in the large employers category. She also received the award in 2016.
Gates came to Community Health Resources in 1993 to serve as the executive director of an agency that had 80 employees and a budget of $3 million. Nearly three decades later, CHR has more than 900 employees and a budget of $66 million.
The pandemic has strained the organization’s finances. CHR received some support from the state and federal governments, but Gates noted that many of its outpatient services are reimbursed on a fee-for-service basis, which is driven by volume, and volume declined due to COVID-19.
“It’s counterintuitive because there’s more of a need now than ever for our services, but because people didn’t want to come into the office, the volume is down, and so that means there’s less revenue,” she said. “We’ve had to manage very tightly.”
Even so, Gates said that CHR’s continued success in providing essential services to Connecticut residents hinges on one thing: the dedication of her staff. From those who keep community programs running, all the way up to her executive team members, Gates said since the pandemic started “I’ve seen people come to work and keep doing what is difficult work to begin with during a time that has been so tough, I just have immense gratitude for what they do every day,” she said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How has the pandemic shaped your leadership style, and how have you helped your employees navigate the upheaval of the past 1.5 years?
A: It has been quite the challenging time in every regard. Because we are an essential health care provider, we serve children, families and adults with serious emotional disturbances, serious and persistent mental illness or substance use disorders, among other conditions. We’re providing a very critical service at a point in time when what we do is needed more than ever. Achieving a balance between our mission to help those with significant needs and at the same time, really support and help all of our staff, is tough.
One of the things that we’ve done — and I’ve tried to make decisions with this in mind — has been to be as flexible as possible, and really try to support our staff to manage our own lives, since we knew the last year and a half, and now going on two years, was not only difficult at work, but also very challenging at home. People have had to take care of parents, their children are home, they have multiple competing demands on their lives and their time. So we’ve really tried to express through our policies — access to additional sick time, hazard pay — anything we could do as an organization within the boundaries of how we get funded and what we’re doing, things that we thought would be helpful to our employees.
It’s been more crucial than ever to lead with compassion, because everybody is experiencing more stress. And so the people we’re serving are needier, our staff are needing to respond to that, but at the same time, their own lives are challenging. Being as compassionate and caring as possible in decision-making has been critical.
Q: At this point in your career, what motivates you to keep doing the work?
A: I’m as passionate now as I was when I started my work in this field over 40 years ago about championing the need for behavioral health services. The people we serve, and then sometimes our staff by virtue of their work, are marginalized within the health care field. And I have always tried to stand up and advocate for the need for mental health and substance use treatment services. Years ago, I was a legal advocate as a paralegal working at a state hospital, and was passionate about it then, and I’m just as passionate now. Of course, now we all recognize the need for services and treatment, it’s about more legitimacy but it still has a long ways to go. I just feel it’s important to be out there advocating for what we do and for the people who are delivering those services, and how critical they are. And that keeps me going. I’m just in awe of the people who work for us and the progress that people make when they come to us for treatment and support. That keeps me motivated every day.
My job is to try to lead the organization, help make sure things are fine financially, and make the best decisions I can make given the available information at the time, but it’s our staff that’s really doing the amazing work.
Q: How do you foster connection among your staff, particularly as some employees work remotely?
A: I do leadership luncheons with our staff. I used to drive around to all our programs and do them in person, of course now we do them through Zoom. That’s a wonderful way to hear how people are doing, what we’re doing well as an organization and what we need to work on. That’s been critical, so I can hear from people directly, rather than having it go through our management structure. And then we have probably quarterly all-staff meetings on Zoom. I give a presentation on how we’re doing, what’s working and what we’re still working on, and then we take questions from anyone who wants to ask questions. And then I do weekly video messages that I send out to all of our staff every Friday, so that’s been a new skill to learn how to do video messages.
Q: Are there certain traits or skills you’re looking for in employees?
A: We’re looking for individuals who are first and foremost passionate about the work itself and the desire to help people. And then of course we’re looking for different educational levels depending on what the work is itself. Quite often we will be hiring people who themselves have faced challenges in their lives and have overcome them and bring that experience into our settings. But I’d say the predominant trait is, we’re looking for compassion and people who are really caring about helping somebody.
Q: How do you maintain optimism in a line of work that can be so challenging, particularly when it intersects with the unrelenting opioid crisis?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself my whole career. Really I derive my optimism from seeing the people we serve get better. All you have to do is hear someone’s story and how we’ve helped them to know that it’s worth continuing to put one foot in front of the other every day.
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.