How Healthcare Organizations Can Increase Employee Engagement

Senior Director of Marketing

There are few industries more important to our daily lives than healthcare. Its importance is reflected in its sustained growth — even during the Great Recession, the healthcare industry continued to expand. As life expectancies increase and technology improves, there will be even more growth in an industry that shows no sign of slowing down.

However, burnout is a major issue in the healthcare industry, affecting both top-ranked surgeons and hospital support staffers. The jobs are stressful and taxing, and retaining employees — both within an organization and within the industry — can be incredibly challenging.

Healthcare employees have the opportunity to work for a variety of organizations, and in today’s tight labor market, workers hold an incredible amount of leverage. To retain employees and create better employee engagement, organizations must provide options and prioritize the needs of their employees. Doing so will ensure your organization is providing the best possible experiences for your employees — and the patients they treat.

Create a Supportive Culture

Healthcare is facing a crisis in culture, even at the physician level. “Physician burnout is a problem,” says Jeff Gourdji, a partner and Healthcare Practice Lead at consulting company Prophet.

He says part of the reason is that doctors often enter the healthcare industry with significantly different expectations for their employment. Many who expected to run and operate their own practice now work for large organizations, and they sometimes don’t feel as if they have autonomy to practice as they see fit.

That isn’t to say that burnout is limited to physicians. All healthcare employees are especially susceptible to it, and another large factor in burnout is consolidation and cost-cutting. Many organizations consolidate departments, not realizing that the extra stress on their employees is a recipe for dissatisfaction, not efficiency.

Gourdji says he’s seen staffing cuts and consolidation create more issues than they were attempting to solve. He specifically cites a Midwestern hospital system that eliminated a management layer in its environmental services department, instead having nurses oversee those workers. While the action was well-intentioned — nurses have a frontline awareness of environmental needs in a hospital — the staff didn’t have the time or resources to handle the extra responsibility.

In addition to creating a poor working environment, Gourdji says, overtaxing employees is a surefire method of undermining a hospital’s marketing. “Dissatisfied employees are your most forward-facing marketing element, no matter how amazing your billboards can be,” he says.

Create Financial Incentives

To improve retention and engagement, employers need to consider the wages they pay — especially in a tight labor market. Raising wages will better engage employees, and it remains cheaper to retain employees than it is to train and onboard new ones.

But there’s another financial incentive employers should consider: tuition reimbursement. Ironically for such an in-demand field, many healthcare support workers don’t have the opportunity to advance in their careers, says Nicole Smith, Senior Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Healthcare is a very bifurcated occupation between healthcare support and healthcare professional and technical,” she says. “If someone starts off in the healthcare support occupation, it’s really difficult to move over into a healthcare professional or technical occupation.”

Smith says tuition reimbursement or an employee assistance in education program can provide workers with upward mobility so they can work their way to a higher-paying opportunity that better provides for their family.

Consider Your Scheduling Options

Another differentiator is employee scheduling. Working in the medical field can be physically challenging, especially for those in nursing. The expected hours, however, don’t account for the physical toll — in fact, they increase it. Smith says many healthcare professionals work 50 to 60 hours a week, far above the average of those with a similar education level.

These hours drive many professionals out of the healthcare field, even if just temporarily. “When you look at the census data on people with nursing credentials, nursing degrees and occupations, we find that a substantial percentage of them are not working,” Smith says. She attributes much of this to the mental and physical toll of the job. “If employers are mindful of this then they can find ways of better scheduling the times that people work.” 

Attracting and retaining healthcare employees requires a multi-pronged approach. Taking a fresh look at your organization’s culture, financial incentives and scheduling practices is a good way to start.