Amid staffing crises, keeping employees engaged is crucial

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When Inspire Hospice and Palliative Care was founded in 2018 to serve the Atlanta metro area, its leaders knew early on they wanted to be an employer of choice.

“There’s no specific benefit or pay rate that can create an environment where people want to work—everything comes down to culture,” said Zack Lee, CEO of the organization. “We care a lot about creating a culture where people feel valued and appreciated.”

Amid the staffing shortages hurting the industry, companies at the top of Modern Healthcare’s Best Places to Work list say it’s vital to recognize employees for their efforts and design opportunities to build relationships.

Inspire, which leads its size category on the list, has grown to about 90 employees. Unlike many healthcare organizations, is fully staffed. “We’re hiring, but it’s because of our growth,” Lee said. “We have very little turnover.”

According to Lee, building an effective company culture necessitates adaptability; fair pay; and responsive leaders who provide employees with the tools and education they need to be successful.

There’s no specific benefit or pay rate that can create an environment where people want to work—everything comes down to culture.”
Zack Lee, CEO of Inspire Hospice and Palliative Care

The company offers employees the same flexibility it expects from them. Good patient care will sometimes require a nurse to linger with a patient beyond their shift’s scheduled end—and staff members sometimes need to knock off early to attend a child’s soccer game, Lee said.

Employees are encouraged to take time for themselves through Inspire’s benefit program too. After their first work anniversary, everyone qualifies for a monthly reimbursement of $75 spent on self-care: a manicure, a massage, a gym membership or anything else that promotes personal well-being.

Inspire also makes feedback a central part of its structure. Compliments from patients or family members are shared during team phone calls or using HIPAA-compliant text messages. More formally, a monthly “Platinum Player” award recognizes the employees who most frequently received positive feedback from patients and families.

Best Places to Work in Healthcare 2022 – Inspire Hospice and Palliative Care

“A lot of hospices are 10 times more focused on complaints than on what’s going right,” Lee said. “We are focused on what people are doing well.”

An employee-friendly culture has helped make Guadalupe Regional Medical Center a four-time Best Places honoree. “A lot of our applicants are referred by their friends who work here,” said Fay Bennett, vice president of employee services.

A lot of our applicants are referred by their friends who work here.”
Fay Bennett, vice president of employee services at Guadalupe Regional Medical Center

GRMC, which serves Seguin, Texas, and the surrounding area, is a not-for-profit community hospital that operates without tax support. Founded in 1961, the facility has a track record of keeping workers happy.

Its employee relations manager visits with staff routinely to keep apprised of any concerns.

“We do ‘stay’ interviews—she touches base with new employees after they have been here six months to see what’s working and what’s not working,” Bennett said. “That way we can follow up with any issues they may have.”

Best Places to Work in Healthcare 2022 – Guadalupe Regional Medical Center

Until the pandemic, GRMC’s vacancy rate for registered nurses was always 3% or less. Turnover increased when pay rates for travel nurses skyrocketed, luring some to more lucrative positions. Even with the challenges posed by the public health emergency, Bennett credits GRMC’s chief nursing officer for maintaining high morale among the nursing staff.

“She has created a wonderful culture with her nursing managers,” she said. “She has a great blend of giving them the autonomy they need to make decisions, yet she’s very visible out in the units.”

That was especially true during the hardest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the CNO put on scrubs and pitched in to help the bedside nurses.

“But that wasn’t just because of COVID—she would do that if there was a crunch on a medical floor or whatever unit needed help,” Bennett said. “The nursing staff knows that they can depend on her, and we’ve developed a good reputation in the community.”

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GRMC fosters esprit de corps among its roughly 600 workers by hosting social activities—ice cream socials, pumpkin carving contests and the like—for its staff and inviting employees to participate in community events, whether that’s handing out water bottles along a parade route or stacking canned goods during a community food drive.

“We look for anything that we can do that helps our employees see that they are part of something good,” Bennett said. “Any one thing may not appeal to everybody, so we look for a variety of opportunities” to suit a range of interests.

Forefront Healthcare, a Detroit-based culinary and support services company, also creates opportunities for its workers to participate in community-building activities. The company—employing about 700 workers, most of whom work in 40 hospitals and senior living communities in 14 states—was founded in 2019 by a group of executives who had worked together previously.

“We feel like one of our strengths is building a strong, cohesive culture and that is something we are committed to,” said CEO Dan Bowen.

Through its Forefront Cares program, employees are given paid time off to participate in programs such as those run by the Greening of Detroit, a not-for-profit that recruits volunteers to plant trees, clean up parks or work in an urban garden. Staff also get paid time off to work at food banks in the communities where Forefront has a client.

“Our team [in Tacoma, Washington] works with the Tacoma food bank,” said Gary Pollack, a partner in Forefront and its senior vice president of operations. “And our associates can bring their families and participate in the event.”

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The company, which ranks first on the 2022 Best Places to Work suppliers list, further seeks to build a fulfilled workforce by using Gallup’s 12-item engagement survey.

The questions on the consulting and research firm’s survey range from “in the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work” and “there is someone at work who encourages my development,” to “at work, my opinions seem to count” and “I have a best friend at work.”

“For all of our directors and managers, we basically look at the 12 questions as a roadmap to their success,” Pollack said. “We actually have cards that they keep on their desks so they fully understand how important every one of those 12 questions are.”

Employees are surveyed every spring and fall, with Forefront leaders continuously trying to better the results.

Best Places to Work in Healthcare 2022 – Forefront Healthcare

“Doing a survey and then crossing your fingers and hoping that your scores are going to go up is not a strategy,” Pollack said. “So we work tirelessly between surveys on where we can improve and how we can improve.”

The team’s approach is effective, leaders said. The COVID-19 healthcare staffing crisis extended to its food-service and housekeeping functions, making it crucial for Forefront to maintain a stable workforce.

“We knew if we had massive turnover we wouldn’t be able to serve our customers, so we needed to engage our associates,” Bowen said. “And during that time we had an increase in associate engagement scores—imagine that.”

Lola Butcher is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Mo.


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