| Sep 14, 2021

How Healthcare CHROs Can Help Stabilize & Enhance Culture by Putting Individuals First

Healthcare workers are under tremendous pressure and the risk of burnout is higher than ever. CHROs can help minimize the dangers by focusing on individual needs and encouraging positive cultural development.
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By Jim Dunn |

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Twenty-two million healthcare workers in the U.S. are showing up for work every day, with 22 million different life stories and billions of concerns stemming from this challenging time. As CHROs, we are doing everything we can to keep enough staff to keep things running. We’re discovering that if we employ the same strategy to care for each individual on our team, we’ll likely fail – we’re addressing the things we know, but we’re not doing anything about the things we don’t know.

The pressure our people are under is unprecedented. It’s not just overwork – it’s moral fatigue over the vaccination debate (no matter which side they’re on), it’s ever-changing policies and procedures, and it’s a hundred ancillary concerns that have nothing to do with what’s going on inside hospital walls. Even hiring bonuses and retention bonuses are not enough to keep our hospitals staffed. We’re living in a world where three out of ten healthcare workers are considering changing industries. And let us remember that the often-referenced “Great Resignation” is not industry-specific, so compared to many other industries, like hospitality and retail, healthcare is doing a great of potentially retaining 70 percent of its workforce. 

An Individual Focus Builds a Collective Culture

People want to be valued as individuals, and they also want to feel connected to a mission larger than themselves.

We are finding that by focusing on the individual, we can actually continue to build our desired collective culture. An emphasis on keeping the team together and sustaining culture increases everyone’s stake in the organizational culture. This eventually comes full circle and stabilizes the culture itself.

The further people feel from their leadership, the more they lose focus on why they’re doing what they’re doing. One of the important roles of the healthcare CHRO is grounding people – reminding them why they decided to get into healthcare and helping steer them back toward a focus on helping people rather than drowning in the sociopolitical issues surrounding this virus. Our messaging needs to be upbeat and focused on how we can stick together during this challenging time of ambiguity. In healthcare, we are recruiting you to a mission, not a paycheck. 

We now have an opportunity to lean in more significantly than we ever have before. Rather than fall apart, we can strengthen our bond through this new openness that’s arising because of this difficulty we’re all sharing.

How To Find Out What You Don’t Know

The single most important thing you can do for your staff (and your entire organization, as well as yourself) is to listen to them.

You will likely be surprised again and again when you think you know the greatest pain points your staff is experiencing, only to take a listening tour and discover that their biggest concerns aren’t even shortages or long hours; it’s their ailing parents or childcare needs. 

Don’t assume no news is good news – right now, we all have to operate under the assumption that there are a high number of struggles out there. Don’t wait until these struggles balloon to an insurmountable point – go looking for them. Trust your intuition. Reach out to those who have seemed quiet lately. It feels a bit strange because we are not used to pressing in on this level, but it’s truly about making yourself available and training your leaders to do the same, constantly reminding your team that you’re there if they need to talk through anything.

Determine and prioritize the individual needs of your staff. Make it a point that these needs are acknowledged and that you’re taking concrete action to find concrete solutions whenever possible.

In most cases, we aren’t able to do traditional team-building right now, so we have to get a bit creative. So many things are virtual and we are learning that we might not get to see faces as often as we would like to. I’m doing things I would never have imagined before, like sending personal gift baskets to colleagues who simply appear to be in need of additional encouragement. 


Gratitude Is Foundational

Gratitude is such a vital force that keeps us going. We need to hear “thank you” early and often when we’re going through a season like this one. Gratitude makes us feel seen. Our organization has tried to find ways to express this gratitude via different channels. When we can move up a bonus or offer one for retention, we do that. When we can offer financial incentives, we’ve done our best to pull out all the stops and compensate our people for their sacrifices.

But gratitude is not a limitless supply of courage and rainbows. Thank yous are critical, but they’re not enough for employees who are burnt out on this level. They need to feel more than just appreciation – they need to feel understood. It starts with leaders making themselves available, but it may not end there. Make sure that mental health resources are available and accessible.

Invest in Leaders Who Can Extend Your Reach

You’re only one person with limited hours and two ears: If you’re able to invest in some others in your organization who can multiply your ability to keep a pulse on your organization, it’s time well spent. Lately, I am not seeing people resist the efforts their HR executives are making to get more involved in their lives. I don’t see them feeling uncomfortable with managers showing interest in what is stressing them at home when the questions posed are open-ended and delivered with respect. What I do see is that employee cultures that put the individual first are growing more and more stable, as their teams are constantly reminded of a crucial message: We’re in this together! 

Jim Dunn
Executive Author

EVP, Chief People and Culture Officer, Atrium Health

Jim Dunn, PhD, DHA, DAST, FACHE, is EVP and chief people and culture officer for Atrium Health, one of the most comprehensive and highly integrated not-for-profit healthcare systems in the U.S. view profile


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