Third in my series of Transforming Hospital Teams

“We just need to hire people who love their jobs.”

Healthcare leaders are facing significant challenges on all fronts. The rapid speed and sheer volume of changes coming at hospitals today are creating highly stressful workplace environments where morale is waning, the cost of turnover is rising and individual and departmental discontent is compromising quality and patient satisfaction.  For all of these reasons, hospital leadership teams are encouraged to consider employee optimism and engagement their number one priority at their rural hospital or CAH.

Happy workers are 12 percent more productive, according to a study from Warwick Business School. Unhappy employees are less productive, more frequently absent and more apt to leave your hospital. Higher costs associated with employee turnover are estimated to be between 30 and 60 percent of the employee’s annual salary, depending on the level of the position and number of years served. In smaller hospitals, in particular, each departure rumored to be driven by workplace dissatisfaction carries with it a host of hidden losses that up the ante on your efforts to engage employees.

To help relieve the stress of constantly shifting demands and keep employees engaged, it’s important to find innovative ways to boost employee morale. Start by shifting your view of who your employees are. They are ambassadors of the organization, and how they represent you is shaped by how you represent them.  Fortunately, improving morale doesn’t require a huge expense, but it does require an infusion of emotional intelligence, an investment of time and focused effort.

Listen and get feedback. It may seem obvious, but the first step is to really listen to your employees and invite them to get their concerns out in the open. Leaders who excel in this area acknowledge employee issues, and make it clear they are willing to make needed and reasonable changes based on what they’ve learned.

What to avoid? Be mindful not to dismiss concerns or complainants because you believe the issue presented is fueled by something else or a reaction to an event that didn’t go their way. Don’t subscribe to the notion, “We just need to hire people who love their jobs,” which was one of the responses in a leadership culture assessment survey we recently conducted.

It’s vitally important not to prejudge or become suspicious of your employees’ motives for sharing concerns.  Encourage their feedback, assure them that you want to hear their ideas and that you are sincere and committed to evaluating them. When employees feel they will be punished for sharing it negates the efforts you’re making toward adopting a Just Culture or Culture of Safety model.

It’s also important that you decide what messages you want to communicate during the listening activities and be consistent. Rather than finding ways for employees to improve their performance, which automatically can put them in a defensive mode, try this approach: “We need your feedback on opportunities to improve our patient’s experience with us in this area.” Make sure your senior team leaders and managers are available, listening and engaging every step of the way. Convey that your goal is to focus on solutions and that you understand the need to learn about problems or challenges to get there.

Employees want to feel that their work and opinions are valued. Take time to consistently round in every area of the hospital.  What happens in the IT department is as important as what’s happening on a patient floor when your goal is to better understand needs, expectations, and hot buttons.  Make eye contact, learn employee names and be part of their daily lives.  When CEOs walk the halls and shake the hands of every employee they encounter, the impact is positive and significant. Other ways to evaluate employee morale is to facilitate routine discussions and focus groups. In my experience, traditional employee satisfaction surveys fail to deliver the kind of information that can only come from meaningful face-to-face conversations.

Six steps to improve employee morale and engagement

Many steps for improving employee morale and engagement don’t involve bonuses or financial incentives. But you do have to be proactive. Here are a few ideas:

  •  Be transparent and keep employees up to date on an ongoing basis

Again, this may sound simple, but surprisingly is a prevalent problem and not doing so is a morale killer. When employees don’t know what’s going on, productivity suffers, and rework or redundancy can increase. Worse, in the absence of any real information, employees often get only part of the story and fill in the blanks with anxiety-producing rumors and gossip.  A monthly CEO update shared at department staff meetings in the form of a Podcast or organization-wide e-blast is easy and effective.

  •  Ask employees what motivates them

Ask employees what they value and how they perceive success. Their answers may suggest a non-compensation reward that will boost morale, and the conversations themselves will make them feel more motivated, appreciated and part of the team, leading to increased morale.

  •  Recognize individual employees

Praise employees at staff meetings and take the time to thank them using email, a handwritten note left on their desk or a gift card sent to their home. In the workshops I facilitate, we use a tool that helps identify personality traits and communication style preferences.  One of the questions we ask of participants once their primary and secondary ‘type’ is confirmed, is how they like to be rewarded, noting that we take money and vacation off the table. Those who identify with being primary “People Type,” for example, become moved when they receive a personal greeting card. “Leader Type” personalities report that they do enjoy some form of public acknowledgement along with opportunities to take on more responsibility. This simple strategy and effort can reap high returns in enhancing employee optimism and morale.

  •  Share with employees the results of their hard work

Remind employees about the meaning of their work by encouraging them to see the impact directly through the eyes of the people they are serving. Share positive patient testimonials and success stories and do it often. Keep them informed of positive patient outcomes and achievement of organizational goals. Doing so not only boosts morale and satisfaction, it empowers them as communicators to audiences outside the hospital.

  •  Offer development opportunities

One of the reported major reasons employees leave an organization is the perceived lack of development and advancement opportunities available. Consider hosting lunchtime professional development roundtables on a variety of topics.  These are not meant to be technical, job-related skills training sessions.  They can be an outlet for employees to opt in and take advantage of a benefit to improve and grow professionally, made possible by you.

  •  Build and protect a culture of trust

Teams that do not trust their leaders, and leaders who lack trust in fellow leaders, can expect more than dismal employee morale results.  Hospital cultures with poor morale and high turnover also experience lower patient satisfaction scores and outmigration, which is especially true in smaller hospital settings.  Trust is essential to successful workplace relationships and performance. Create and support an environment that encourages employees to be engaged in helping to make decisions. Let them know that you consider their lack of input and idea sharing to be acceptance and approval of the direction.  Encourage them to become involved in appropriate discussions and trust in their input.

Finally, manage expectations, deliver on your commitments to them and own it when things don’t go as intended. Share in your hospital’s successes and be careful not to spread blame for organizational shortcomings

Up next: Refining Internal Communications – The #1 area slated for improvement as reported in every hospital culture assessment survey we’ve conducted.

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