'Never lose your "why"': How Cleveland Clinic's 1st chief caregiver officer is tackling staff engagement

When Kelly Hancock, DNP, RN, became Cleveland Clinic's first chief caregiver officer in June 2020, she was tasked with leading strategic development and implementation of employee engagement during the thick of the pandemic. Today, she continues this responsibility — and oversees daily operations for human resources and nursing teams — while keeping in mind lessons she's learned along the way.

Dr. Hancock, who is also holder of the Rich Family Chief Caregiver Chair, told Becker's she's particularly gained the ability to be agile and resilient.

"I joined the caregiver office in June of 2020 and was tasked with leading a new area and team. We were amid the pandemic, and things were changing daily and rapidly," she said. "But creating this office was a true testament to our 76,000 caregivers [worldwide] that we care about them, and we want them to thrive and grow at Cleveland Clinic. Grounding myself in this vision and our 'why' helped me to roll with the changes and to take each day as it came. Never lose your 'why.'"

Before her current role, Dr. Hancock held the dual position of executive chief nursing officer of Cleveland Clinic and chief nursing officer of its main campus. She shared her perspective on the latest workforce challenges, discussed Cleveland Clinic's recruitment and retention strategies, and offered some advice for colleagues.

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

Question: What is your general perspective on where things are regarding workforce challenges? What is today's environment like compared to one year or two years ago?

Dr. Kelly Hancock: We have certainly been challenged over the past year and half and what we've seen happening in the labor market. While the pandemic exacerbated the challenges of today's workforce, it did not cause them. Hospitals across the country are experiencing an unprecedented workforce shortage, combined with ever-growing demand, particularly in healthcare.

Through August 2022, U.S. job openings were at 10.1 million, of which 2 million were in healthcare alone. We know the current labor market won't change overnight. However, through much work and investments with retention and recruitment, we have already seen positive signs that we are beginning to stabilize a bit more now and will continue to into next year.

Q: How do you keep employees resilient when they're starting to show signs of burnout, declining participation?

KH: The silver lining of the pandemic was that it put things into perspective for a lot of people. It made people rethink chronic job stress, or a lengthy commute, or made them reevaluate their work-life balance.

We aim to offer an environment that workers want to be a part of. Examples of this include leadership modeling wellness behaviors — such as taking personal time off, meditating, prioritizing a midday walk or connecting caregivers with well-being resources when they notice someone struggling.

Manager check-ins are another focus area for us. Making sure managers are checking in often with their caregivers — asking them how they are, what's going well and what needs improvement. We're making time for caregivers to feel seen and heard so that we can try to get ahead of burnout or disengagement.

Q: What role is education playing in expanding the workforce pipeline?

KH: Expanding our talent pipeline through education is a huge focus for us, and has been, especially in nursing, for some time. Cleveland Clinic has strong relationships with our academic partners, and we collaborate with them on many different initiatives. One of these initiatives is through the Deans' Roundtable, a partnership designed to address current and emergent issues impacting nursing education. Cleveland Clinic is also a part of the Workforce Connect Healthcare Sector Partnership with other local hospitals. Through this partnership, we are collaborating on how to address the shortage of healthcare talent for employers.

College and university recruitment team is also on campus with 80 schools across the country, meeting students right there in the classroom to talk about careers at Cleveland Clinic. Our goal is to support schools in their efforts to attract, retain, prepare and graduate healthcare majors.

Another aspect of education in expanding our workforce pipeline is related to the work we've been doing with the OneTen coalition, which is an organization dedicated to training, hiring and promoting 1 million Black Americans into family-sustaining jobs over the next 10 years. We have two highly successful apprenticeship programs in IT and pharmacy, which are designed to be "learn and earn" programs that provide meaningful, on-the-job experience that can lead to a career. In addition to apprenticeships, we continue to explore skills-based hiring methods, which we know improves diversity in the workplace and allows us to fill more jobs.

Q: What are your top priorities for 2023?

KH: Retention remains one of our key focus areas for 2023. Obviously, the more we retain our caregivers, the less we need to recruit. We want caregivers to build long-term, meaningful careers at Cleveland Clinic.

We have several retention initiatives happening now and planned. One that comes to mind is our efforts around evolving our benefits strategy. We know with our growing workforce that every caregivers' needs are unique. What is important to one caregiver might not be to another — but the goal is to offer them both flexibility and choice.

We are laying the groundwork now to respond to preferred benefits and creating capabilities to be more agile in responding to caregivers' shifting preferences. Our goal is to deliver an exceptional benefit experience that ensures Cleveland Clinic is the best place to work in healthcare.

Apart from our benefits strategy, several other retention efforts remain at the forefront, including, creating a robust well-being strategy, offering flexibility where able, providing education and training programs, and ensuring that our workforce is diverse and inclusive.  

Q: What is one piece of advice you'd pass along to your colleagues at other health systems?

KH: Don't overlook the power of gratitude and being present.

Recognizing employees for the work they do and the contributions they make is one of the most important drivers of employee engagement, especially as we continue to face workforce challenges. Recognition is also shown to improve retention and reduce turnover. 

Make recognition easy, accessible and meaningful. Take time to listen to caregivers, whether it's formally through surveys or listening sessions or informally through leadership rounding. Give your employees your full attention and show them that you are present, you are listening, and you are understanding.  

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