5 ways to improve your hospital’s culture and employee engagement

Culture can mean different things to different businesses, but essentially it's the way things are done and the attitude people have about the way things are done. It's the values and practices shared by the entire group.

Hospitals with adaptable culture outperform those without it – as much as 200 percent, according to some estimates. But in healthcare, it's not just about business performance. Culture can have a direct impact on patient care and patient satisfaction.

Cultures that don't support a hospital's mission can lead to unhappy employees. Unhappy employees might not be offering the best possible care to patients. Herb Kelleher, the visionary former CEO of Southwest Airlines, believed success comes from treating employees well and making them happy. "We've always taken the approach that employees come first," Kelleher said. "Happy and pleased employees take care of the customers."

You can't just wave a magic wand and improve your facility's culture. It takes time, across-the-board cooperation from all departments and a willingness to change. In my work helping improve cultures at hospitals across the country, I have found that these five items are a good springboard into successful, lasting improvement:

Define Your Culture
Does your hospital or clinical department have a clear mission statement? If it doesn't, it absolutely should. Your mission statement should act as a guideline and a reference for every member of the staff. Your culture should be supportive of the hospital mission.

For example, the mission statement of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital is "to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of our founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion or a family's ability to pay." That's a wonderful example of a clear mission statement, and a clear goal for the organization's employees to work towards. The culture of St. Jude's, based on their mission statement, is to focus on research and treatment of pediatric diseases and every child who comes through their doors receives the best possible care the staff can offer.

Make Culture Improvement a Group Project
"The beatings will continue until morale improves" is a phrase used sardonically these days, but it's how a lot of employees feel when an organization dictates changes. Culture is best improved when employees at every level buy into making things better. Staff should be questioned about what they see as problem. Their input should be sought for solutions and honesty should be rewarded. Employees are the ones that are most affected by culture, they should have a key role in improving it. Seeking their straightforward input will also help build trust between staff and administration. Trust, participation and buy-in are absolute musts if culture is going to be improved in any meaningful, lasting way.

Identify the problems and outline the goals
Now that you've gathered the team together and received their honest input, identify the main problems that are having a negative impact on your culture. Then brainstorm on the best ways to fix them. Bear in mind, the "best" ways will seldom be quick and easy. But by delineating and perhaps even displaying the goals to serve as reminders, and with the buy in from the staff, even the loftiest goals can be attained.

Develop a measurable plan for improvement
What gets measured gets managed. As my colleague, Dr. Thom Mayer, likes to say: "'Some' is not a number, 'soon' is not a time, 'somehow' is not a strategy." The entire staff needs a clear understanding of what "better" will look like. Everyone involved needs to agree on deadlines for changes, what those changes are – everyone should know what the goals are and should recognize the improvements when they see them.

Maintaining culture change may be more difficult than attaining it. Along with the improvement plan, set a date for evaluation of how the plan is going. Reestablish the connection between your culture goals and the supporting organizational mission statement. Make sure you routinely seek input from the staff. Evaluate the problems and goals, revisit your action plan and determine your progress. Just like Lean or Six Sigma or other process improvement programs, culture change is an ongoing procedure.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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