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The pandemic has employee morale reeling. Here’s how leaders can restore it.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare had an employee-engagement problem.

As an industry, healthcare faces the second-highest rate of employee attrition in the country, at 20%. An astonishing 70% of nurses report experiencing symptoms of burnout in their current roles. And just 44% of healthcare employees report feeling highly engaged in their work.

All of this was already affecting healthcare workers before a global pandemic initiated the most harrowing, demanding, and stressful period of their careers. Small wonder that employee engagement was the healthcare industry’s fastest-growing concern in 2019.

If that were true then, it’s likely even more true today. Throughout this crisis and beyond, keeping healthcare staff engaged in their work will be critical to preserve patient safety and sustain organizational cohesion.

But COVID-19 also constrains leaders’ ability to reach their employees. What can leaders do in the face of the rising caseloads and shrinking revenues that have characterized this crisis?

Here are three important strategies that leaders should pursue to maintain morale among their workers.

1. Protect them

First and foremost, healthcare leaders must vigorously—and vociferously—safeguard their employees’ physical safety. This concern dwarfs all others, both from a humanitarian perspective and as a matter of strategy.

Employees have been especially clear on this point. Numerous worker petitions, op-eds, and government-agency releases have underscored the protections healthcare workers are asking for. These include the common social-distancing practices, PPE requirements, and capacity changes that have been detailed in CDC guidelines and elsewhere.

(These protections are also, incidentally, widely favored by consumers, according to NRC Health consumer data.)

Implementing these changes would be a worthy start. It will not, however, be sufficient to win employee enthusiasm. To do that, health systems will also likely need to arrange some employee-policy changes—including changes to PTO requirements and new allowances for work-from-home wherever possible.

Taken together, these approaches will show employees that leaders have taken their safety to heart. To maximize the effect, it will also be incumbent on organizations to communicate about what they’ve done via employee intranets, email bulletins, and mailed materials.

No measure is too much, when it comes to showing employees that their workplace is safe.

2. Offer transparency

While this pandemic is a health-crisis first, it is also an economic one. Millions have already lost their jobs, and millions more lose them each week. Despite the sector’s historic resilience, many healthcare workers are surely wondering: Is my job next?

Seeing these kinds of cuts can put employees in a protracted state of suspense that can be devastating for morale.

To curb the negative impact that potential bad news can have on employee engagement, health systems should strive to be as up-front as possible.

Especially important is what, precisely, a “furlough” might mean for the individual employee. Will they receive updates from their employer as the crisis wears on? Can they expect to be hired back in the near-term? How long will their benefits persist after their termination?

While nothing can quite soften the blow of a furlough, being honest with employees about these matters is an important gesture of respect—and one that employees are likely to recognize and appreciate.

3. Understand them

The above two steps are important for any institution, anywhere, to follow. At the same time, however, no two hospitals have entered this crisis with the same set of problems. Each organization’s workforce issues are highly individuated. No one-size-fits-all solution will work for all of them.

That’s why it’s so important that organizations understand their employees, before attempting to rally them. It’s this authentic understanding that should inform workforce strategy, and define the steps that leaders take to engage the frontlines.

Here, NRC Health’s Workforce Engagement solution can help.

By performing instant, customized workforce surveys, Workforce Engagement enables leaders to gather reliable intelligence on what their employees need. At a glance, they’ll see what’s on employees’ minds, where their priorities lie, and what employers can do to serve them.

Diversicare, a provider of post-acute care in the Southeast with more than 10,000 employees on its staff, used Workforce Engagement to implement dramatic improvements to its culture.

Through the solution’s surveys, they found that, while team members enjoyed working for Diversicare, the employee experience varied considerably across the organization’s 60+ communities.

Insights from Workforce Engagement enabled Diversicare’s leaders to build a more coherent organization, and spur improvements in employee morale in the process.  Year-over-year staff turnover declined by 27%, and employee “Would Recommend” scores shot up by 9%.

Mary Greeley Medical Center, in Iowa, saw similarly stark improvements when it deployed Workforce Engagement.

“We wanted the experience of working at Diversicare to feel unified. That’s why we partnered with NRC Health.”

—Leslie Campbell, COO, Diversicare

Leaders wanted to find a way to reinvigorate the organization’s staff and renew a sense of commitment to service.

Using Workforce Engagement helped them spark productive conversations with staff members and form new central goal-setting policies that resonated across the organization.

Employees felt heard and respected by leadership, resulting in a marked uptick in workplace satisfaction—“Great Place to Work” scores shot up by 5%, employee attrition declined by 1.5%, and patients even remarked on improved staff communication.

Mary Greeley Medical Center, in Iowa, saw similarly stark improvements when it deployed Workforce Engagement. Leaders wanted to find a way to reinvigorate the organization’s staff and renew a sense of commitment to service.

Using Workforce Engagement helped them spark productive conversations with staff members and form new central goal-setting policies that resonated across the organization.

“The data we had from NRC Health’s Workforce Engagement tool showed us where to start having discussions with our employees.”

—Penny Bellville, SPHR, CCP, SHRM-SCP, Director of Human Resources, Mary Greeley Medical Center

Employees felt heard and respected by leadership, resulting in a marked uptick in workplace satisfaction—“Great Place to Work” scores shot up by 5%, employee attrition declined by 1.5%, and patients even remarked on improved staff communication.

Help your staff rise to the occasion

Today’s healthcare workers are braving inconceivable dangers to protect their patients. It’s no exaggeration to call their efforts heroic.

While healthcare’s leaders cannot control the course of the pandemic or relieve their workers from all the stresses of the day, they can honor their employees’ sacrifices. Frontline workers, after all, deserve every bit of the treatment that patients have come to expect—treatment with dignity, respect, and understanding at its center.

For other examples on how organizations are inspiring their staff, check out our other articles on the topic:
Finding alternatives to furloughing the healthcare workforce
Workforce Engagement improves culture and decreases turnover

“The data we had from NRC Health’s Workforce Engagement tool showed us where to start having discussions with our employees.”

—Penny Bellville, SPHR, CCP, SHRM-SCP, Director of Human Resources, Mary Greeley Medical Center