5 Ways for Hospitals to Become Better Employers

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Being seen as a "good" employer has become increasingly important for hospitals and health systems. Here's five tips on how to become a better employer.

Healthcare has become an extremely competitive industry, with hospitals and health systems striving not only to attract patients, but to attract and retain employees and physicians as well. Being seen as a "good" employer will allow organizations to not only attract top talent, but to keep them engaged and retain them for the long haul as well.

About a decade ago, hospitals could strive to be good employers just to feel "warm and fuzzy," but now, things have changed. Having an engaged workforce positively impacts clinical outcomes like patient experience and quality scores. And, with healthcare reform, those scores play a critical role in outcomes important to hospitals' bottom lines.

With that in mind, the following are five suggestions of how hospitals can become better employers.

1. Gain employee input and perspective. One of the most important things hospitals can do to improve their performance as employers is to gather, listen to and act on input and perspective from their employees. "By enabling the exchange of ideas and demonstrating to their team members that they are valued, hospitals can create a community that takes pride in its innovative spirit," says Bill Fera, MD, principal and CMO at EY Health Care Advisory Services.

Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., has seen great results from its employee input program. The system started using Gundersen Touchstone Groups — small, representative groups of physicians and employees from different departments — to share information about new projects and gather feedback. "[The program] provides enhanced communication to understand what's on employees' minds and really help us impact and make change in the workplace," says Mary Ellen McCartney, Gundersen's chief learning officer. "We have to listen and not assume we know."

The groups are chosen to be a representative sample of the group of employees and meet once a month or quarterly. They have helped the system with everything from developing the organizational tagline to giving input on the human resources Web page design. "We gain insight into their perspective on what the organization is working on," Ms. McCartney says.

2. Offer updated, robust and fun employee wellness programs. Employee wellness programs keep employees engaged and healthy and can also keep healthcare costs down for employers, so many industries have embraced offering these programs. However, healthcare lags behind: fewer than half of U.S. hospital employees said their employer supported their health and well-being, according to a 2012 joint Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health survey.

This year, though, it seems many hospitals have begun offering improved wellness programs. "Wellness is a huge trend right now, but engaging employees to participate is just as important as offering a wellness program," says Christine Adoni, regional vice president of account management with Ceridian Lifeworks, an employee assistance and wellness program that helps organizations improve employee health and wellness, increase engagement and improve productivity. The next step for hospitals would be to go above and beyond in terms of getting employees to use and enjoy the programs.

For instance, Ms. Adoni suggests making wellness programs fun and challenge-based in order to improve participation. Examples include having departments compete for number of minutes exercised or number of steps taken in a period of time. Additionally, offering a smartphone application that allows employees to access the program is key. "With younger workers in the workforce, they are much more likely to access services through the Web," Ms. Adoni says.

3. Empower leaders. According to Towers Watson research, the number one driver of engagement for employees in the healthcare industry is leadership: When healthcare leaders are effective, trustworthy and interested in employees, their workers are more likely to be engaged. This is more important than ever because of the turbulent nature of healthcare today. "There's confusion and fear from employees of what's going to happen in terms of cost cutting," and other changes due to healthcare reform, Rick Sherwood, director of talent and rewards and leader of the healthcare industry group at Towers Watson, says.

However, because many healthcare leaders have backgrounds in clinical care and not management, strong leadership has been something healthcare organizations have struggled with, according to Katie Welch, senior consultant of talent and rewards for Towers Watson.

In order to engage employees in this time of change in healthcare, hospitals need to focus on improving the caliber of their leaders. One way to do so is increasing the visibility of executive leaders. "Really get leaders out in front of employees," Mr. Sherwood says. "Having leadership out in front of employees is critical. It improves the overall employee experience." He also suggests offering tools for managers who want to improve their leadership skills.

4. Strengthen employee connections with patients. "Fostering engagement amidst turmoil necessitates a restoration of meaning in work," says Tim Vogus, PhD, a professor at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management who focuses on creating safety cultures within healthcare settings. One way hospitals can do so is to reaffirm the connection between employees and the patient.

To connect workers to patients at Gundersen, the system starts every meeting with a patient story. "It sets the tone of, this is why we're here," Ms. McCartney explains. "It puts the energy in the room focused on the patient." And the patient story idea does not just apply to direct caregivers. "If you're in accounting, you're reading patient stories before the meeting," she says.

5. Use data to drive decision-making. While the above are good general suggestions for hospitals looking to become a better employer, every hospital should consider its own employee base when making decisions about new programs. Mr. Sherwood suggests using information from employee surveys to gauge what will drive engagement and retention. "Leading hospital systems are taking their employee survey data and using it to drive decision making", Mr. Sherwood says.

"Doctors use data before making diagnoses," he explains. "Leaders should be no different.  Instead of taking action on the latest leadership book or article, hospital systems should be more deliberate in using data — –like employee surveys – to drive their action taking." Using organization-specific data to drive decisions will lead to more effective programs and a more engaged employee base.

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