7 Employee Engagement Mistakes to Avoid in Uncertain Times

With the widespread uncertainty in healthcare today, organizational leaders are nervous about the mystery the future holds around reimbursement, operating costs, changing delivery models, etc. As a result, focusing on employee engagement might have taken a back seat to these other pressing matters.

If you are reading this, you've probably attended many meetings where decisions are being made about what to do to stay ahead of this curve of uncertainty. Your employees are a key part of the answer, and your organization's success depends, in large part, on their engagement.

Can your organization really expect to survive, let alone grow and prosper, without the full on commitment of your leaders and staff? No! It's just not possible. Here are seven engagement-crushing mistakes to avoid from healthcare leaders across the country. Focus on employee engagement today so that your organization is still prospering in the future.

1. Conflicting internal and external brands
The marketing department is great at conveying a message of caring and concern to your community constituents. Who is taking care of conveying the same message to your employees? Employees need to know how much you appreciate and care about their contributions. Front-line managers have the bulk of the responsibility for these and executives need to chime in as well.

Tim McManus, CEO of Chippenham and Johnston-Willis Hospitals (an HCA affiliate) in Richmond, Va., writes a regular blog where he conveys this important message to his employee base. He often writes about an individual and his or her contributions with pictures and anecdotes. You can tell he knows these employees and cares about their success. Last year he had more than 50,000 views of his blog.

2. Under communicating
Many leaders are fearful of sharing important information about the future direction of the organization because they don't necessarily trust the employees to use the information wisely. Sometimes it feels better to pretend that everything is okay. Or executive level leaders think that telling managers and cascading the key messages is good enough. It's not. Employees want to hear strategic updates from executive leaders in person, and they want leaders who are present and listen to their concerns.

At Evangelical Community Hospital, in Lewisburg, Pa., the executive team started senior level rounding throughout the hospital on a regular basis. The CFO, Jim Stopper, shared that in the beginning it was challenging to make time on the calendar and that now, the time is some of the most productive he spends when it comes to understanding employee engagement and the "pulse" of the organization's front-line staff.

3. Losing sight of your purposeful mission when diversifying
Most healthcare organizations began with the mission of serving and caring to positively impact the health of individuals and the community. As your healthcare organization expands into other growth areas, make sure that you are connecting these acquisitions to your core mission. If you hired well, your current team wants to continue to work towards that mission. If you stray too far off the path, the employees might miss that important connection.

Under the leadership of Samuel Ross, MD, Bon Secours Baltimore Health System is growing in its local community. In addition to inpatient care, the system provides career coaching and training through workforce development programs. They help parents understand child development. They even provide financial services, from income tax preparation to wealth creation. They create gardens and clean up neighborhoods and provide women who are struggling with a shower and a free hot breakfast. That's diversification with a mission!

4. Stop investing in the growth and development of your leaders and staff
Many leaders I speak with tell me that all budget dollars for staff retreats and conferences have been cut. Let's think about this logic. We are expecting folks to work differently and then asking them to do that with the same set of skills they have used in the past. This doesn't work in the long term (or the short term). To change the way things are done, growth and development needs to be addressed. You either pay now or pay later.

Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit hospital systems in the country serving the western U.S., recently applied for and received a multi-million dollar federal grant to support their employees and community members. As a result, Deborah Martin, MBA, MSN, RN, NE-BC, FACHE, director of professional practice, and Molly Winkler, MHSA, FACHE, grant administrator, were able to organize and conduct an Emerging Nurse Leaders Conference where more than150 emerging nurse leaders participated in a full day retreat (in multiple locations using two-way video streaming technology). During the interactive workshop, we worked on strategies and tactics that the next generation of nursing leaders will need complete with follow-up afterwards.

5. Leave human resources out of executive-level meetings
Depending on the size of your organization, you might not have an HR leader at the executive level. Since the people in your organization really are your biggest asset, it's critical to have an HR representative present whenever strategic decisions are being made. Someone in the room needs to be actively thinking about the implications of strategic decisions on your human capital.

David Swift, senior vice president of human resources and chief human resource officer at the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore, provided a strategic HR view when discussing attracting and retaining employees at the executive level. Having HR insights into compensation and benefits allowed the health system to consider important data when looking at engagement related financial factors.

6. Too many, and often conflicting, priorities
Leaders and employees are fatigued from all the new, different, important, internally and externally driven priorities. It's almost impossible to keep up. Yes, there will be new and conflicting priorities. So why not ask folks to think about what they can stop doing?

Recently, I asked a group of leaders at an Alabama Organization of Nurse Executives conference to take the time to think about and respond to the question, "What can you stop doing?" At first, there was skepticism as to whether there was anything they could do away with. Then the ideas started rolling. Many of the things to stop doing included outdated tasks and reports that did not add value or were not being used to make decisions. Getting staff involved in answering this question is very illuminating as well.

7. Expect employee engagement to take care of itself while you focus on "everything else"
Since employee engagement drives every key metric you measure (safety, quality, satisfaction, throughput, etc.), you really can't afford to not pay attention to it. Unfortunately, for many organizations, the only time engagement is talked about is when the annual (or biannual) survey is done.

Janet Blank, a nurse manager at Carroll Hospital Center, focuses on engagement on a regular basis. Conducting monthly one-on-one meetings with each team member, talking about engagement during rounding and staff meetings and creating an environment with shared responsibility for engagement has paid off in improved quality metrics and retention. Stephanie Reid, vice president of quality and chief nursing officer, and Tracey Ellison, vice president of human resources, provide the executive-level support for these activities.

The ball is in your court now. What mistakes will you avoid and how will you maximize employee engagement to optimize results?

Vicki Hess, RN, MS, CSP, author, consultant and professional speaker, works with healthcare organizations across the country to create sustainable cultures of engagement. Read more in her new book for healthcare leaders (reviewed here in early October), "Six Shortcuts to Employee Engagement: Lead & Succeed in a Do-More-with-Less World" is available at www.VickiHess.com or Amazon.To contact Vicki, email her at vicki@vickihess.com.

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