How to Achieve Sustainable Employee Engagement in Healthcare

(Guest blogger Craig Deao is a senior leader at Studer Group, a healthcare consulting firm, and a managing director at Huron.)

The benefits of employee engagement are widely touted: happier employees mean more satisfied customers, and ultimately result in better business performance. While the payoffs are promising, employee engagement has proven to be hard to sustain, let alone achieve. Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace” report found that 85 percent of employees are not engaged at work, at the expense of approximately $7 trillion dollars in lost productivity.

Given the critical nature of the work, employee engagement in healthcare should not only be a focus but a business imperative for healthcare leaders. A lack of engagement can lead to high employee turnover, more physician burnout, and decreased patient satisfaction and quality of care. For sustainable employee engagement, organizations need to foster a culture that encourages meaningful work and increases the discretionary effort of its workforce.

Engage from the Top Down

Employee engagement has a cascading effect and its importance needs to be underscored by healthcare leaders, who set the tone for the day-to-day work environment. Employees perform best in environments where they feel supported and valued, so leaders must help their employees understand how the work they do makes an impact. This concept also applies to employees who aren’t interacting with patients, since it can be less obvious to connect the dots about their impact on the patient experience.

Empower your employees and help them find a connection to something that they care about—something that gives their role meaning and purpose.

After a large health system partnered with the Studer Group to improve employee engagement, a woman who worked in their mailroom reached out to us and explained how she used to give herself a pep talk every morning to help her get up early to go to work. She told herself that if she wasn’t there to open the mail, the organization might miss some bills that would get sent to collections. If that happened, they might not have the money to pay for everything needed to keep the organization running. And maybe all that would come to a head someday if her daughter got in a car accident, came to one of their hospitals, and couldn’t get the kind of care she needed—all because her mom couldn’t get out of bed and to work at an earlier point in time.

Although this employee was distant from hands-on patient care, she had a clear line of sight between how her job makes a difference in a patient’s experience. However, not everyone can find this motivation within, especially when his or her work environment isn’t cultivating this kind of connection. As a healthcare leader, it’s your responsibility to empower your employees and help them find a connection to something that they care about—something that gives their role meaning and purpose.

Help Employees Move from Firefighting to Fireproofing

Many people within healthcare organizations fall prey to the tyranny of the urgent versus the important, where every single incident or email gets their full attention regardless of its severity. For employees to be more engaged in the workplace, they must learn how to prioritize the right issues.

As you reflect on your own career, you might find that your most engaged days weren’t necessarily your easiest days.

When I first set out to research employee engagement, I came upon a study by Harvard Business Review that asked working professionals to keep a diary and rate their moods, motivation levels, and perceptions of the work environment each day. An analysis of more than 12,000 diary entries found that the days where they were most intrinsically motivated weren’t the days where they received any feedback, rewards, praises, or anything of that nature. It was the days where they felt like they made meaningful progress towards something they cared about.

As you reflect on your own career, you might find that your most engaged days weren’t necessarily your easiest days. Rather, you were working on things that made meaningful progress towards what you cared about—when you’re fireproofing instead of firefighting. By owning your own agenda and calendar, you can restore a sense of control and free up time to work on more impactful things. This applies to leadership as well as employees—everyone should feel empowered to do their best work.

Ask What’s Working and What’s Not

How do you find the engagement-sapping barriers that keep your employees from doing their best work? Ask them. At Studer Group, we advise all leaders within the organizations we coach to meet with each employee every month in a practice we call “Rounding for Outcomes,” a brief conversation that’s proven to have a profound effect on engagement and results. In a one-on-one setting, engage with each employee on a personal level by talking to them about something that has nothing to do with work, such as how their family is doing or how their hobbies are coming along.

Then ask the following, in this order: “What’s working well at work? Is there anyone I can recognize who’s been helpful to you? Do you have what you need to support you in doing your best work? Are you encountering any barriers that I can help you resolve?” Most importantly, take notes and be relentless about following up on what you hear.

Enabling employees to do meaningful work is critical to employee engagement, and requires a consistent feedback loop and the right systems and processes to support them. Technology can be a powerful accelerant that offloads mundane tasks and allows employees to apply their skills and expertise to the things that technology can’t do—innately human things that require empathy, connectivity, communications, and influence.

Unfortunately, many healthcare organizations are still operating on legacy systems and their employees are bogged down by slow technology that prevents them from fully engaging in their jobs. These employees end up spending significant time working on things that they weren’t hired to do such as piecing together and fact-checking spreadsheets and reports—activities that they should be able to do within the technology.

The right technology will allow your workforce to do their best work by making what encompasses their role more automated, manageable, and efficient. And as regulations and patient expectations continue to change, the systems you choose should be agile enough to change with your organization’s needs. Accordingly, healthcare providers are increasingly adopting cloud technologies that require less infrastructure to be ripped and replaced and more flexibility for current and future needs.

Employee engagement isn’t just about getting people to do things differently; it’s about getting them to do fundamentally different things. It starts at the top and trickles down the organization to every single employee. To learn more about how healthcare leaders can enable their employees to provide the best care, register for webinar replay: Equipped to Care: How Highly Engaged Healthcare Providers Are Transforming the Patient Experience.