Expanded meditation and wellness programs, a certified nursing assistant academy and added opportunities for research are among the recent initiatives at Wallingford’s Gaylord Specialty Healthcare spearheaded by President and CEO Sonja LaBarbera.

LaBarbera, 49, took the top job at Gaylord in 2019 and soon faced the challenge of dealing with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping the nonprofit health system’s expansion on track. 

During the worst of the pandemic, LaBarbera worked to stabilize the system, moving many of its rehabilitation programs into the hospital setting while endeavoring to maintain staff morale. In the years since, she has expanded efforts to support Gaylord’s nearly 1,000 employees while adding programs and facilities. 

Searchable database: The Top Workplaces of 2023

LaBarbera is 2023 winner of the Top Leader award in the large employers category in the Hearst Connecticut Media Top Workplaces contest; she also won in 2021. She spoke with Hearst about her efforts to support Gaylord’s workers and expand its services. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.  Click here to see how the winners list was made

You took the job of president and CEO a year before COVID hit. What has been the pandemic’s impact at Gaylord?

Some of the topics that are most relevant in a post-COVID world do relate to the workforce. It’s not only about finding and recruiting and retaining staff, but the needs of the staff are different in a post-COVID world. We put in a lot of wellness programs, programs focused on staff resiliency, teaching them just how to take a moment and sort of regroup and refresh during the day. You almost have to give people permission to take care of themselves. Then they’re better to take care of the patients. So much of what we do here is about really providing the patients with individualized care and making sure that they have everything that they need. If we don’t apply that same theory to our employees, then they can’t give their best to the patients at the bedside. 

What are some of those new programs?

We’ve done a lot with mindfulness and meditation: We brought in facilitators from the Copper Beech Institute to help train our staff to be mindfulness facilitators for both patients and staff. We have this beautiful 400-acre campus here, so we encourage employees to take time outside. We’ve created some specific garden spaces that both patients and staff can go out to to get some fresh air. 

We’ve tried to look at flexible scheduling; we’ve done some creative things with job shares and with some different shift lengths. People want flexibility and they want a wellness focus. We’ve also brought back all of our employee recognition programs. We got away from that all during COVID, and now we’re trying to bring it back because it does help with retention. If people feel connected to their employee family, it’s easier to stay in a job. 

Many health-care systems have reported great difficulty in finding and hiring qualified staff in the post-COVID era. What has Gaylord done to address workforce issues?


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