Workforce Training in the Age of COVID-19 and Zoom

Since its launch in 2018, Coordinated Behavioral Care’s (CBC) Training Institute (TI) has embodied a versatility befitting the evolving behavioral health landscape in which it operates. This ability to reflect both the training content and format necessary to resonate with its broad audience of New York State behavioral health providers has played no small role in the exponential growth it has experienced in the past year.

Virtual business training call over Zoom

The TI began by developing an array of trainings designed to support frontline behavioral health workers in programs run by the citywide community-based providers within the CBC network. The menu of training opportunities has evolved over the years to include applied material designed to help behavioral health service providers work directly with their clients (Person-Centered Engagement, De-escalation, Building Effective Relationships with Participants), to holistic, mindfulness strategies for service providers to practice with themselves and their service recipients (Coping Skills, Building Effective Relationships with Participants and Self Care).

CBC’s TI has employed a wide array of learning formats informed by adult learning theory. In-person sessions often stray from traditional lecture-style presentations, instead favoring a more interactive format that fosters engagement through break-out groups, video content and games. CBC TI’s goal was to cater to all learning styles and support the emotional wellbeing of the behavioral health workforce, empowering them with the necessary tools to improve community care. An emphasis was placed on localized in-person learning—CBC secured training locations across the city so that long commutes to facilities were no obstacle to attendance.

Naturally, COVID-19 presented unforeseen challenges to the TI’s well-oiled training operations. Scheduled trainings were immediately canceled, given the need to maintain social distance and limit in-person gatherings. However, CBC recognized in the pandemic’s early weeks that the behavioral health workforce required the regular cadence of their training experiences—not just to continue refining their practice, but as a means of communication, peer support and normalcy in an unprecedented time. CBC TI quickly pivoted to repurpose all trainings for an online/virtual format, and attendance rose significantly as a result. Whereas previously TI trainings were primarily held at CBC’s commercial offices in NYC’s Financial District, now providers were afforded accessibility to these trainings from the (necessary) comfort of their own home office. By leveraging the same remote/virtual telemental health platforms that providers were fast becoming acquainted with in their everyday work, CBC TI was able to improve access to its own services without sacrificing quality. With MCTAC (a part of the McSilver Institute) hosting and providing technological support, the TI was able to focus on building content for a broad online audience. Trainings were shortened from whole-day programs to shorter 60–90-minute sessions, with a sensitivity to “Zoom fatigue” and lower attention spans when training online. The TI also quickly learned how to use these platforms’ built-in engagement tools, including video, polling and prompts that encourage liberal use of the chat-box feature.

In late March 2020, CBC published its April Training Calendar, featuring a variety of online trainings that had been developed to meet the unique challenges of working amid a pandemic. Offerings included traditional trainings that centered quality care and professional development, as well as more intentionally therapeutic opportunities for self-care—with content cast through a mid-pandemic lens and repurposed to account for the potent uncertainty of the moment. In the following months, CBC TI continued to develop unique COVID-19 response trainings that supported the fluid and challenging work and social climate. The response from the workforce to these trainings was encouraging—attendance increased dramatically, showing a desire and demand for trainings that offered guidance, reassurance and “virtual hugs” during a time of heightened anxiety and isolation. By the end of 2020, CBC TI was serving upwards of fifty attendees at each training and successfully marketing its product to dozens of community-based provider agencies across NYC.

A large part of the behavioral health workforce is essential frontline workers. While they do not often receive the recognition of hospital staff, they too have had to continue providing community-based services throughout the pandemic. From retaining food pantries to administering medication to providing residential support, this workforce has risen to the challenge of continued in-person work and ensured quality care endures despite COVID-19. However, their heroic work has had a heavy emotional impact, ranging from heightened anxiety to grief and loss in the wake of a client’s death. CBC recognized the importance of supporting the workforce around these issues and partnered with OMH and OASAS to apply for COVID-19 emergency grant funding via the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) just as the pandemic’s impact on CBC member agencies and their clients was coming into sharp focus. CBC and its IPA partner Coordinated Behavioral Health Services secured a multi-million-dollar award to develop a program that mitigates the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the emotional wellbeing of New Yorkers in hard-hit NYS counties and communities therein. By providing timely services and person-centered care to address the depression, stress, trauma, bereavement, substance use and other behavioral health concerns that have surfaced during the pandemic, CBC is empowering New Yorkers to resume happy, productive lives once the crisis abates.

CBC TI’s role in this award’s programming has been to recognize the pandemic’s toll on not only the mental health of vulnerable community members but the behavioral health workforce itself. Accordingly, CBC TI developed and marketed an array of supportive offerings in its COVID-19 Self-Care Training Series by and for behavioral health staff across the entire state, many of whom need support to address COVID-19’s impact on their personal and professional experiences over the past year. To deliver content that met this unique and growing need, CBC TI identified lead trainers with clear expertise amongst its IPA network and partnered to develop trainings on topics that tackled urgent matters that the pandemic had made more commonplace, ranging from grieving the loss of a client to physically returning to the workplace and managing anxiety therein. Each training both explores the topic in a sensitive and empathetic way and offers concrete tools for trainees to manage each difficult aspect of the pandemic.

CBC TI has also sought subject matter experts outside its network, partnering with the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health to integrate a six-week yoga and mindfulness course into its COVID-19 Self-Care Training Series for behavioral health staff. The initial six-week offering was fully booked in a matter of hours—CBC added a second opportunity which has also reached capacity. Future Kripalu trainings are planned for later this year. Finally, the COVID-19 Self-Care Training Series has also engaged a nationally renowned epidemiologist to hold COVID-19 “Town Hall” sessions with behavioral health staff. These sessions provide a platform for behavioral health staff to pose practical questions about the virus directly to an expert. To date, the Town Halls have provided clear guidance on questions ranging from the relative safety of various public transportation methods to facial covering best practices to social behaviors in which vaccinated populations can safely re-engage. In advance of each Town Hall, behavioral health staff across the State are invited to submit questions on areas of concern and these are broadcast live in a podcast-style interview held over Zoom. Each session caters to a particular subject matter, such as vaccine hesitancy, and questions from staff are interwoven over the course of the session.

The COVID-19 Self Care Training Series has established itself as a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic for the behavioral health workforce. In merely two months since launch, the program has trained 807 behavioral health staff employed by 219 community-based provider agencies across New York State. This remarkable reach has been highlighted in Crain’s Health Pulse New York and prompted further funding from SAMSHA to continue programming into 2022. The trainings are recorded and subsequently uploaded to CBC’s YouTube channel for on-demand viewing.

Click here to receive CBC TI’s SAMHSA-sponsored Self-Care training offerings direct to your inbox each month and consider joining CBC’s Independent Practice Association for universal access to CBC TI. Please email CBC Director of Training Emily Grossman ( for further questions.

Alex Wolff, MPH, is Project Manager, Emily Grossman, MA, CPRP, is Training Director, Jorge R. Petit, MD is President and Chief Executive Officer, and Mark Graham, LCSW, is Vice President, Program Services, at CBC.

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