6 health system execs on how to battle labor shortages beyond pay

Although compensation increases have played a key role in retaining and recruiting healthcare employees amid a major workforce shortage, perks such as mental health services and education financial assistance have also helped meet staff needs.

Six health system CEOs and CFOs shared their best tips for retention and recruitment that go beyond compensation:

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Michael Dowling. President and CEO, Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.): A critical key to retaining our workforce is not only maintaining but growing our relationship with our team members. One area of focus for us, given our organizational commitment and based on team member input, has been well-being.

We have invested in enhancing our already robust offerings for our team members, including the establishment of behavioral healthcare navigators to support team members and their family in navigating and selecting the right service to meet their needs, stress first aid education for our leadership, rapid response services following crisis events, financial well-being programs, spiritual well-being services, programming through our Northwell Center for Wellness and Integrative Medicine and more. We actively recruit providers to our benefit plan network to ensure that our team members can access quality providers at the lowest possible cost.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, we scaled our employee assistance program knowing the need may be greater. We created a hotline for support — which is still open today — which offers complimentary confidential counseling services to employees and their family members. We established our center for traumatic stress, resilience and recovery to provide resilience coaching and more. We also increased our virtual offerings: virtual fitness, cooking classes, deep breathing, meditation, yoga and even story time for our team members’ children. We installed tranquility spaces in many of our hospitals for team members. These were all developed in large part in response to feedback we received from our team members.  

We're a well-being organization; that’s just the business we’re in, so we had a lot of these tools in place before COVID and we’re grateful we did because they have been used exponentially. One key improvement was the establishment of a dedicated website as a one-stop, go-to site for team members to access all our resources.  

These health and well-being investments reflect our values and great place to work driven culture at Northwell. In addition to career experience and other workforce experience strategies, they have directly served to drive retention.

Cliff Megerian, MD. CEO, Jane and Henry Meyer Chief Executive Officer Distinguished Chair, University Hospitals Health System (Cleveland): At University Hospitals, we are working to create a culture that’s second to none. One where our caregivers feel listened to, appreciated and rewarded for a job well done. In fact, creating a culture of trust is a key aspect of our UH strategy. We also refreshed our core values to ensure we "walk the talk." Part of this involves engaging our caregivers in deeper dialogue about their work environment and decisions that impact them as well as encouraging our caregivers to speak up. We have implemented numerous initiatives to directly connect with our caregivers (town halls, written communication, rounding and recognition programs) and we have adopted other multifaceted strategies to enhance our value proposition, including more flexible scheduling options, recharge and resilience programming, career advancement opportunities, volunteer time off and financial incentives. Importantly, we have also invested significantly in furthering a sense of belonging through our justice, equity diversity and inclusion activities, as we firmly believe our role as a healthcare provider is to champion health equity for all.

Greg Hoffman. CFO, Providence (Renton, Wash.): At Providence, we have advanced many programs for our caregivers and I will highlight a few. First and foremost, Providence is ensuring the well-being of our caregivers. For us, well-being means the whole person — financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, etc.  Examples of our investments include free behavioral health visits, Behavioral Health Concierge, No One Cares Alone, e-CPR, focused choose well/virgin pulse platforms on well-being, web resources and tools, etc. Another key focus area for us is to continue and expand on the growth and development of our caregivers. We are offering education reimbursement to all our caregivers. We changed the payment model for most of our certifications so those in our lower paid job categories do not have to pay out of pocket. Additionally, we have leaned into virtual platforms and scaled the use of a learning experience platform everyone can access from their cellphones, which allowed us to be more agile with development (e.g., leading through burnout, leading for retention, implicit bias, etc.). Finally, we are reinforcing our caregiver's links to our mission. We have done this by scaling formation experiences virtually, assessing our mission fidelity and rewarding leaders for mission- and values-focused outcomes. 

Bob Ritz. President and CEO, MercyOne (Des Moines, Iowa): One unique benefit we're offering to battle workforce shortages is our Jump Start program. Individuals earn a monthly stipend while finishing nursing school, and MercyOne covers the cost of board exams and licensing fees. After RN licensure, nurses can start their career at MercyOne in a select nursing position. We are also elevating our partnerships with schools to increase the number of students as well as growing apprenticeship opportunities within area high schools.

To help retain colleagues, we have continued focused work on our culture to support staff including piloting flexible scheduling models. MercyOne firmly believes our ability to extend our mission is in each one of our colleagues. We continue to feature our colleagues' stories on why they love working at MercyOne in our recruitment efforts. The stories our colleagues are so willing to share as MercyOne Ambassadors open our culture for our future MercyOne family members to see. Our colleagues know us best and know who will fit well into our culture. We invite them to recruit family and friends to work at MercyOne and pay a referral bonus to our colleagues who refer someone who is hired.

Bill Gassen. President and CEO, Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, S.D.): Our highest purpose at Sanford Health is taking the best possible care of our patients and residents, and to do that, we need to take the best possible care of our people, especially our front-line caregivers. Sanford Health was proud to be recognized by Forbes as the Best Employer in both South Dakota and North Dakota in 2021. The ranking was based on employee ratings on a variety of criteria, including workplace safety, compensation and opportunities for advancement. For the last three years, Sanford Health has been named a top employer of choice for transitioning service members and veterans by Military Times. Our organization is dedicated to supporting veterans and military personnel by providing exclusive services and benefits for our nation’s heroes who choose to work at Sanford Health. 

The American Medical Association also honored Sanford Health through its Joy in Medicine program in 2021, one of 44 health systems recognized for their commitment to healthcare team well-being and programs to combat work-related stress and burnout. We have a comprehensive strategy to support the well-being of our caregivers, which includes different programs to support our clinicians in their clinical practice, but also as individuals. We invest heavily in every community where our clinics and hospitals are located, and we encourage our clinicians to get involved as community leaders, not only in the clinical setting. We also offer leadership development opportunities because we believe we have the responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders.

We have built a culture of well-being through small peer groups, training, mentorship, counseling, a clinician wellness council and other programs which offer support at the organizational level, promote wellness and encourage a healthy work-family-life balance. When someone joins Sanford Health, they become part of our family, and we do all we can to support their well-being, offer a competitive compensation and benefits package and provide opportunities for growth and advancement.

Mike Slubowski. President and CEO, Trinity Health (Livonia, Mich.): At Trinity Health, our colleagues are central to our mission. We know that addressing healthcare’s workforce shortage requires a multifaceted retention and recruitment approach to benefits that focuses on enhancing our colleagues’ lifestyles in impactful ways. Because of that, we launched a cross-functional team from across our national system charged with generating ideas and rapidly assessing and deploying meaningful changes that benefit our colleagues. This includes flexible scheduling, hybrid work options, an expedited interview process, streamlined onboarding for new colleagues, and health and welfare benefits on day one of their new job. The team is also developing initiatives for current clinical and nonclinical colleagues such as nursing and medical assistant training programs that allow full- or part-time work while gaining clinical skills and training.

One example of our innovative approach to recruitment and retention is First Choice, our in-house travel staffing program for nurses and clinicians. First Choice is an alternative option for clinical staff colleagues who want increased flexibility to stay with Trinity Health. We are also putting a significant emphasis on recruiting entry-level workers who have a passion for our mission. We are creating workforce development programs that will provide individuals with the education and hands-on experience to enter numerous healthcare occupations.

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