Michael Dowling: 5 keys for engaging the millennials in your hospital's workforce

Employee engagement is one of the more high-stakes buzzwords circulating the healthcare industry. The prevalence of disengagement throughout the American workforce warrants major concern from hospital and health system leaders.

Gallup's latest State of the American Workplace poll revealed that just 30 percent of Americans are engaged in their work, meaning the bulk of American workers — 70 percent — are either not fully engaged or actively disengaged from their jobs. In healthcare, when we have others' lives and wellbeing in our hands, employees who aren't fully invested in their jobs pose a threat to patients, as well as to the organization's reputation and bottom line.

Yet employee engagement remains a challenge for many health systems, and this issue is exacerbated by some of the differences between baby boomers, Gen-Xers and millennials, the latter of which comprise a growing class of the American workforce. As a baby boomer, along with many others at the executive level, I think it's critical that we work extra hard to understand how the younger generations think, what motivates them, how they behave and how they prefer to communicate.

Leaders who remain fixed in their ways and refuse to accommodate the work styles of younger workers, particularly millennials, will fail to effectively engage them, and ultimately will not be able to retain them.

Here are five tips for engaging a multi-generational workforce, particularly the growing group of millennials.

1. Show employees how they contribute to the bigger picture. People of all ages want to be more than a cog in the machine; they want to see and understand how their role contributes to the organization's overall goals. They want to know that each day they are making a meaningful difference in some way.

This is true across many industries, but I think it's especially relevant in healthcare, where all providers share the same goals of providing high-quality care and improving the health of the community. As leaders, it's critical that we clearly articulate the organization's vision and goals. If you do this right, you'll attract the kinds of people who share a commitment to that vision. You must appeal to their hearts and their heads. 

2. Provide feedback and recognition consistently. Although professionals from all generations benefit from candid feedback and appreciate praise, this is especially true for millennials. They seek close relationships with their managers and desire a continual feedback loop; performance reviews once a year will not suffice.

And when it comes to feedback, praise and criticism are both important. Millennials want verbal confirmation when they are doing good work, and they also want to know right away when their performance is not quite at par. We've paid more attention to this at Northwell Health over the last few years and we've already seen significant gains in our employee engagement scores. We went from the 68th percentile for engagement nationally to the 85th percentile, and we're not done yet.  

3. Make it clear how to move up in the organization. Employees, especially younger ones, want to develop their careers. They want to be in a place where they can grow intellectually and earn trust to take on greater responsibility. It's important to have clearly defined tracks to move up in rank. What's more, give employees the chance to try out other departments, clinical service lines and roles, even if they are lateral moves. No employee will stay at an organization where they feel they're heading for a dead end.

At Northwell Health, employees who demonstrate passion for healthcare and express interest in developing their careers with us can qualify for a two-year training program that provides professional development and role-specific training, paving the way for upward mobility.

4. Commit to millennials as much as you ask them to commit to you. At Northwell Health, we have high expectations for all of our team members. In return, we promise to be as supportive and accommodating to them as possible. Millennials have different preferences when it comes to communicating, management and growth, but many of them are very smart and have a lot to contribute to the organization — if the organization lets them.

With this in mind, we created a millennial task force that is responsible for telling us what we should do differently to help them succeed. For example, the task force told us they were frustrated with the slow pace of communication on their teams. After hearing that feedback, we were able to develop new standards for communication and implement changes that helped people across the organization work together more effectively.

5. Don't just be a name — be a face. I cannot emphasize how important it is to get out of the office. Attending organization-wide events and giving speeches is not enough. As leaders, we must show we care about employees enough to prioritize time with them. And moreover, we have a lot to learn from them. I am continually impressed with how bright many of these newly minted professionals are.

Northwell Health hires about 150 new employees a week, and I meet with all of the new hires every Monday morning. There, they ask me any questions they'd like, and I also have the chance to ask them a little bit about themselves.

In addition, I meet once a month with 30 to 40 of Northwell's millennial workers for breakfast. The breakfast is informal and gives me an opportunity to walk around and ask them questions about their career goals, what they hope to gain from working at Northwell, what they desire in a manager and, importantly, if they have any suggestions for how to improve the work environment. They are not shy, and I've gained some incredibly valuable insights from this cadre of employees.

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