Providence chief people officer on the health system's $220M staff investment

Greg Till is executive vice president and chief people officer at Providence, a Renton, Wash.-based health system with 52 hospitals across seven states. Mr. Till spoke with Becker's Nov. 5 about how the network is navigating healthcare's staffing crisis.

Editor's note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: How is Providence retaining and recruiting staff during this challenging time?

Greg Till: I think, like others, we're deploying a lot of similar techniques, and we're doing a few special things. So first and foremost, I'd say that we're focused on retention. We know that the best recruiting strategy is a good retention strategy, and we want to do everything that we can to keep the caregivers that we have. And so from a financial perspective, a few months ago, we announced a $220 million additional investment. The biggest part of that was just a gratitude bonus for everyone up to and including the director level to ensure they know that we really appreciate the sacrifices that they've been making over the past year and a half.

Secondarily, we've done a lot in terms of retention to ensure that our caregivers understand that we really care about their mental health and well-being. Healthcare is going through pretty significant burnout, in addition to all the other crises that we're facing and just everything that we've been through over the past year and a half. So we've invested a significant amount more in our own caregivers' wellbeing. They have almost unlimited access to mental health resources, including 25 free behavioral health visits.

The third thing that we're doing is we're preparing our leaders really well to have stay conversations with our caregivers and doing everything that we can to reduce the conditions that create burnout. We've enabled them with new technology, we've enabled them with better access to free development for their careers, and even creative things like additional time off and leaves of absence if they really do need a break.

Just like everybody else in healthcare, we're faced with increasing attrition. Our caregivers really stuck with us through the pandemic. Last year, we saw the lowest levels of attrition since we've been measuring it at Providence, and that includes everything from new caregiver attrition to retirements. Well, this year, like everybody else, we've seen a spike in attrition, including an 18 percent increase in retirements. Our healthcare folks that stuck with us when they wanted to retire last year are [retiring] this year. And so we're really focused on doing everything that we can to hire. And for us, like others, we're hiring into a smaller pond. We're getting 50 percent fewer applications.  The unemployment rate in hospitals last month was under 2 percent.

And so it's even harder. A couple of the things that we're doing is we've attached referral bonuses to every single position that we have open in the organizations. This is a way that we can reward our internal caregivers for referring their friends, their family, their previous coworkers in order to fill some of the staffing gaps. We've also, like other folks, attached sign-on bonuses to our most competitive positions. Over 50 percent of our positions now have sign-on bonuses, including, in some of our markets, up to $35,000 for nursing positions.

One of the things that we're doing that's not monetary is trying to highlight what makes Providence special. For us, as a faith-based, mission-focused, values-forward organization, we think that we have a great opportunity for caregivers to come in alignment with their calling in a way that can provide them with special experiences.

We've also made a pretty significant, especially for healthcare, commitment to development. We're aiming to make education debt free. We're not all the way there yet, but across our family of organizations, we've offered $5,250 in education reimbursement. We're aiming to make almost all of our certifications free or low cost to our caregivers, and we're showing them paths from lower-paid positions to higher-paid positions. So we put a lot of our time, effort and focus into the development and growth of caregivers — both current and community members who want to be in healthcare — to try to relieve the workforce crisis that's been building for the last 10 years in the industry. For the last 10 years, we've been opening more roles every year than we've been filling in healthcare, and it's just been exacerbated by the current crisis.

Q: How is Providence handling this period of misinformation brought on by the pandemic?

GT: I think it's giving our caregivers access to the tools, resources and information in lots of different ways. With misinformation regarding vaccines specifically, we've taken a multidimensional approach. We have communication videos. We've had closer-to-the-ground communication at the hospital level to ensure that our Black caregiver resource groups and our Latinx caregiver resource groups are providing their communities with information.

At the individual leader level, we're giving leaders really simple access to tools and resources like FAQs, answers to common misconceptions, and we've offered everyone in our entire organization a free telehealth visit with a provider if they're still vaccine hesitant. So they can get on the phone anonymously with a provider in our own organization to have a conversation about some of the vaccine myths.

When we see misinformation out there, and vaccines are just one example of that, it's really an all-in approach to have macro-level communications and change management tactics all the way down to the individual supervisors. 

Q: What advice do you have for other chief people officers?

GT: I think our primary aim right now is a dual focus. At the same time that we're focusing on the massive workforce crisis that all industries are going through — and I think healthcare has it worse than others — we have to be steadfast in thinking about our vision for the future. We won't be able to be doing the same things five or 10 years from now and having success in healthcare. The workforce is not going to be there. And so we need to get out of our tactical mindset that we have to employ right now to ensure that we're retaining and hiring the best, and really be thinking about how we're going to design a new workforce for success, how we're going to automate so that we can make sure that all of our caregivers are practicing at the top of their license, and open up new access to sources of talent that we haven't had before. And no one system is going to be able to solve that problem alone, so I think that partnership in that transformation is going to be critical.

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