Does culture really matter in healthcare?
Yes – it matters a lot. Organizational culture is a critical component to the health and success of your organization, your teams, and your patients. Culture impacts everything from job satisfaction, recruiting, and retention to the quality of patient care. For healthcare organizations, who have been battered by COVID-19, staffing shortages, and employee burnout, having a healthy, vibrant culture has never been more important.
To date, there have been more than 70 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and nearly three-quarters of a million deaths. Throughout the pandemic, health systems and their workforces have remained on the front lines mobilizing resources to ensure access to care for the patients and communities they serve; however, after nearly two years, the pandemic has taken a significant toll. A Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll found that about 3 in 10 healthcare workers considered leaving their profession, and about 6 in 10 said pandemic-related stress had harmed their mental health.
Even before COVID-19, healthcare culture and the impacts to workers and patient care was a hot topic. In a JAMA Surgery study, surgeons who had several reports of “unprofessional behaviour” (defined as bullying, aggression, and giving false or misleading information) had patient complication rates about 40% higher than surgeons who had none. In 2018, hospital culture was directly linked to patient outcomes in a major study led by Yale School of Public Health scientist Leslie Curry. Risk-standardized mortality rates after a heart attack were higher in hospitals that had a culture that was less collaborative and open.
Erratic hours, scattered workspaces, shifting team compositions, the stress of life-and-death decisions, and the mental health toll of the pandemic have created a perfect storm that is leading to severe staffing shortages. Since February 2020, hospital employment has decreased by nearly 94,000, including a decrease of over 8,000 between August 2021 and September 2021 alone. An analysis of EMSI data found that there will be a critical shortage of 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026, illustrating the magnitude of the problem facing the healthcare field.
Changing the culture of healthcare requires a diligent and organized effort to define WHAT the better culture should be. Here are some strategies to help you get started.
The Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll has revealed that medical burnout has reached epidemic proportions, with an overwhelming 55% of front-line healthcare workers reporting burnout (defined as mental and physical exhaustion from chronic workplace stress). It’s paramount for healthcare organizations to recognize burnout and develop the tools necessary to combat it. Consider creating peer-to-peer coaching sessions where people have an opportunity to voice their feelings and get advice from peers and mental health experts on coping with burnout and promoting wellness. Build a a mental health resources page with a list of outreach programs and contact information for anonymous psychological health support. Lean into your learning and development resource by creating training for leaders on managing with empathy and emotional intelligence.
Research by the Brandon Hall Group found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%. As we say here at Blue Beyond, onboarding is not an event – it’s an experience. Make your program personal and blend in formal, social, and workplace learning. Work to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging and help prepare existing team members for the newcomer’s arrival. Resist the urge to focus solely on tasks or policies; consider pivoting to what the experience of working with your organization would be like. Appoint a new hire buddy who can offer advice and don’t forget to onboard your internal transfers too.
The more connected your employees feel with one other, the better the patient outcomes and the more satisfied they’ll be with their jobs. Ensure that your leaders and healthcare executives are investing in and supporting social relationships by visibly demonstrating collaborative behavior themselves. Incorporate team-building activities into your orientation and training programs and offer soft skills training in teamwork, DEI, emotional intelligence, networking, having courageous conversations, coaching, and communication.
Communicating with employees on a regular basis can position your organization as one that cares about its staff and stakeholders. Share key metrics related to the success of your organization, such as patient safety and outcomes, and tie those successes to the efforts and contributions of your teams. Utilize different styles and types of communication, whether it’s a newsletter, 1:1, company-wide email, team meeting, or organizational event. Be as transparent and authentic as possible and work to avoid overly complex messaging.
8 in 10 knowledge workers say it’s important that their organization’s values align with their own. Take time to consult with employees at all levels of the organization when asking the question “do our values align?” If a rewrite is necessary, involve everyone. Work to cultivate purpose by linking tasks to company goals and invite employees to brainstorm and collaborate on ways to deal with challenges within the organization. Look for ways to empower and educate leaders on management styles that more actively engage their teams. Hold lunch and learns on a variety of topics (e.g., tips for staying motivated, leading inclusively, practicing self-care) to softly imbed work ethics into the workplace.
Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives. One of the best predictors of what people will do is what they are incentivized to do. A total rewards package is essential to attracting and retaining top talent. An effective rewards strategy combines monetary compensation and other benefits with opportunities for professional growth and development as a reward system to motivate employees to stay engaged and productive at work. For example, a rewards strategy that gives recognition to employees who exceed expectations or go above and beyond for their teammates and supervisors is an effective tool to incentivize success.
Healthcare leaders have the challenge of both actively undoing many of the entrenched cultural norms associated with the profession and creating new models that dismantle environments that are blatantly toxic or passively aggressive. Although the work may be challenging, it’s worth investing the time, energy, and money in creating a positive workplace culture that leads to motivated employees and better patient outcomes.