6 Tips to Improve Hospital Employee Engagement

Memorial Health System in Springfield, Ill., embarked on a journey several years ago to improve its employee engagement. In a 2004 survey of employees at Memorial Medical Center (the health system’s flagship hospital), employee engagement scored in the 30th percentile nationally. As a result, making Memorial Health System "a great to place work" was established as one of the health system’s three strategies. Over the next five years, the system steadily improved in this area, and in 2010, the hospital scored in the 94th percentile for employee satisfaction. The system has been named an "Employer of Choice" for three years, and its affiliate, Memorial Physician Services, earned the award twice before the system applied as a whole. Brad Warren, senior vice president and chief people officer, and Brian Tieman, system director, employee relations, say making engagement an organizational imperative was a key driver in the system's success. Here they share six tactics for other hospitals looking to improve their employee engagement.  

1. Make engagement part of your hospital's core strategy. Employee engagement directly impacts a hospital's success, and as such, it should be part of a hospital's overall strategy — not just a task assigned to the human resources department. “Engagement is critical in any service-oriented business,” says Mr. Warren. "We believe great patient care and service is best delivered by employees who are engaged and passionate about our mission," he says.

2. Gain support from senior leadership. Senior leaders must show their commitment to improving engagement in order for improvements to take hold. "No one will believe engagement is a priority unless [the senior leadership team], takes engagement very seriously and displays that level of engagement by modeling the way," says Mr. Warren.

Buy-in from leadership throughout the health system should come naturally. "The only way for Memorial Health System to fulfill its mission to improve the health of the people and communities we serve is to have the unfailing support of employees and their understanding of how their work supports our mission, vision and strategic goals,” he adds. “That level of support will require the highest levels of employee engagement."

3. Hold managers accountable. Senior leaders can best demonstrate their commitment to engagement by holding the leaders who are their direct reports accountable for improving engagement scores and encouraging those leaders to do the same for those who report to them. "Senior leaders need to be actively involved in ensuring a sense of accountability to the teams under their direction," says Mr. Warren. "Without this, we could become complacent."

At Memorial Health System, every department supervisor, manager or director across all affiliates meets with his or her leader to go over employee survey results and develop an action plan to address any deficiencies in the department. "We have made changes in staffing if results did not improve," says Mr. Warren.

4. Provide training. If hospitals plan to hold supervisors accountable for improving engagement, they should offer training to enhance supervisors' skills in this area.

Memorial Health System holds training sessions it cleverly calls "Great Place to Workshops," which are open to any supervisor within the organization. These sessions, offer supervisors training on leadership and provide management tools and techniques. The health system also holds a special workshop each year solely focused on helping mangers interpret employee survey results and develop action plans around them, says Mr. Warren. 

The system also demonstrated its commitment to training by adding an organization development division within its human resources department. These specialists work one-on-one with managers of lower-scoring departments to develop action plans to improve engagement. They also staff open "survey labs" where managers can drop by for help interpreting survey results, developing action plans and tracking improvement progress.

5. Share best practices. Hospital leaders should also facilitate the sharing of best practices to improve employee engagement. Memorial Health System holds workshops that give managers the opportunity to share best practices for survey participation and engagement and has created best practice tip sheets featuring some of the most popular ideas. The system also invites managers of departments that have experienced significant improvements to speak and answer questions about their successes at the Great Place to Workshops.

"Having our own managers share their best practices is very well received," says Mr. Tieman. "Employees enjoy hearing success stories from their colleagues, not just, for example, by a best-selling author."

Examples of the best practices include rewarding departments that meet survey participation goals with a free luncheon or other activity, holding regular department themed events to encourage camaraderie and sending employees birthday cards in the mail thanking them for their hard work throughout the year.

However, the most successful best practice the health system uncovered seems to be one of the simplest — involving all employees, not just managers, in engagement efforts. Some departments have "green teams" — teams of employees that work throughout the year to encourage survey participation and move survey scores from the red levels that require improvement to performance that reflects attributes of an engaged workforce.

"Ultimately what has made a difference in our engagement journey is that it has been a collective effort between employees and leaders, not leaders doing it alone," says Mr. Tieman. "Yes, the manager is the leader, but every employee is part of the solution."

6. Focus on employee relationships with front-line supervisors. Memorial Health has placed extra emphasis on improving employees' relationships with their front-line supervisors in response to research suggesting this is one of the most crucial links to engagement.

Improving that relationship involves training supervisors to be more open and supportive with employees. Memorial Health System has had significant success in this area. In 2010, 83 percent of staff at Memorial said they agreed with the statement "My manager or immediate supervisor is receptive to staff suggestions," up from 41 percent in 2006.

Another key responsibility of front line supervisors is helping employees understand how their role supports the organization's mission, vision and goals. "The more information we can provide on how the work of all employees in all professions and walks in life impacts our success, the more success we'll have," says Mr. Warren.

Supervisors should not only model passion for their job but also help employees develop passion for their work through giving it meaning. "Part of the role of the supervisor is to connect our vision and mission to the work employees under their direction do every day," he says. "This is something that really can only be done through a personal relationship."

Mr. Warren adds, "’Value of employees’ is one of our seven organizational values.  That tells you how critical we view employee engagement to be to our success. Buildings are important, standards are critical…but the best strategy for creating great patient experiences and delivering high-quality, patient-centered care is through the hands and hearts of engaged people."

Learn more about Memorial Health System.

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