Fueling success via employee engagement and talent: 6 straightforward strategies for hospital leaders

Dissatisfaction and disengagement are endemic among the American workforce. In healthcare, rates of disengagement and burnout are especially concerning, threatening patient outcomes, the patient experience and ultimately the hospital's bottom line.

According to the 2014 Gallup study of employee engagement, 52 percent of full-time workers are not involved or enthusiastic about their work, while 40 percent said they are only passively engaged or actively disengaged. In the healthcare industry specifically, these problems are exacerbated by a high rate of leadership turnover: In 2015, hospital CEO turnover hit 18 percent, the second highest rate since 2000.

A disengaged hospital workforce poses many issues to a hospital and the patients it serves. Disengaged employees are linked to higher rates of turnover, absenteeism and errors on the job. They are also linked to lower productivity, profits and customer satisfaction, explained Donna Katen-Bahensky, CEO of DKB Consulting, during a June 29 webinar sponsored by Select International. Ms. Katen-Bahensky previously served as president and CEO of Madison-based University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics and Iowa City-based University of Iowa Hospital Clinics.

On the flipside, engaged employees are more energized about their work, are committed to their jobs, are willing and able to solve problems and are actively engaged in using their skills, experience and creativity.

"Hospital staff drive the patient experience," said Ms. Katen-Bahensky. "Without engaged employees, you do not have a positive patient experience. [The employees] are the ones that have a direct impact on the patient experience and quality of care." And while all healthcare organizations are under increasing pressure to improve quality and maintain a safe hospital environment, "We all want to work in an organization in which people are happy, thriving and wake up every morning wanting to go to work."

When it comes to addressing employee engagement, hospital leaders are beginning to refine their talent strategies to ensure the hospital workforce is a strong cultural fit and aligns with the organization's core values. Here are six best practices for building a positive hospital workforce.

1. Define the organization's values — and anti-values. If an organization does not have a clearly defined set of values, there is no structure to guide employees' behavior. This in itself can incite disengagement, but it can also lead to hiring the wrong people.

"We use our values in every decision, especially recruiting and hiring," said Mark Sevco, president of Monroeville, Pa-based UPMC East, which opened in 2012, and UPMC McKeesport. "We found over the years that if we have satisfied employees, that will lead to very loyal patients, financial viability and sustained competitive advantage. But that starts with values and building patient engagement."

Establishing strong values is integral to the hiring and recruiting process. When evaluating job candidates, hiring managers and hospital leaders can gauge whether a prospective employee could embody the organization's values to determine if he or she would be a good fit. Additionally, by including "anti-values" — behaviors that won't be tolerated — in employee contracts, hospital leaders will have grounds to discipline or terminate "toxic" employees who don't exemplify the core values, according to Mr. Sevco.

2. Use a behavioral competency assessment to select and develop talent. To incorporate the organization's values into the hiring process, UPMC East worked with Select International to implement a suite of healthcare-specific behavioral competency assessments to evaluate whether prospective employees would act in a desired way in various situations. The tests screen employees from the outset and identify existing employees' behavioral deficiencies to target areas for improvement, according to Mr. Sevco.

While technical competency and experience are important to hiring decisions, Mr. Sevco pointed out behavior and attitude are equally — if not more — significant determinants of a candidate's future success. "We hire for talent and behavioral traits over experience — even when considering internal candidates who have lots of experience," he said. "The behavioral assessment tools helped us ensure applicants have what we are looking for: a sense of compassion, an upbeat attitude and enthusiasm." 

3. Enhance communication across the board. "Why do we sometimes struggle to deliver an exceptional patient experience?" said Brad Weeks, director of performance improvement and research at HealthStream, a healthcare workforce solutions company. "The key factor is confidence."

According to Mr. Weeks, employees throughout the organization need confidence that they have the support of leadership, as well as the resources to provide the best possible care. Patients also need to feel confident that they are safe and receiving high-quality care.

Confidence in both of these groups is predicated on communication. Employees will feel more confident when they maintain candid and transparent communication with hospital leadership, and patients feel the most confident and have positive experiences when they feel the clinical staff respects and listens to them.

4. Invite physicians to the decision-making table. The "key lever to pull" when it comes to increasing physician engagement is allowing them to provide input on clinical and administrative decisions, according to Mr. Weeks. "Make sure their voices are heard and used in a meaningful way to improve patient care — that's where their passion is," said Mr. Weeks.

At healthcare organizations with hybrid models — both employed and affiliated physicians — physician engagement may be somewhat of a challenge, according to Mr. Sevco. However, it should be a top priority. By showing physicians data on patient satisfaction and enabling them to identify strategies to improve, hospital leaders can help facilitate stronger physician engagement as well as enhanced patient experience.

5. Give genuine recognition and give it frequently. Physicians, like everyone else, need to feel valued and appreciated, according to Ms. Katen-Bahensky. Hospital leaders can renew or increase physician engagement and commitment simply by recognizing their accomplishments and the value they lend to the organization. "Giving recognition is important for showing the good work they are doing," she said. "You have to continuously nurture clinicians. Be visible to them, listen to their issues and recognize their work." 

6. Expand the role of the human resources department. HR is no longer transactional. Senior HR leaders need a seat at the table with C-suite and board leaders, and they should be included in every critical decision related to the hospital's strategy and planning for the future, according to Ms. Katen-Bahensky. "Discussions can't be all about money and nothing about people," she said. "You can't do anything without people."

To download the webinar, click here.

To view the webinar on YouTube, click here.

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