illustration of Lois Bowers
Lois Bowers headshot

An interesting trend emerged recently when I spent time with the profiles of the 2022 Best Workplaces for Aging Services lists that Fortune published in partnership with people analytics firm Great Place to Work and Activated Insights, the senior care affiliate of Great Place to Work.

To arrive at the rankings, survey responses from more than 140,000 senior living and care employees were analyzed. Each winning provider profile included a word cloud created based on employee comments on the survey about what makes those companies great places to work. The larger the word in the cloud, the stronger it was tied to employees’ positive perceptions of their workplaces. (If you aren’t sure what a word cloud is, here is an example, although that one was somewhat randomly generated.)

So what word was the largest — sometimes by far, sometimes tied with other words — in most of the word clouds? Residents. In fact, if my vision and counting are accurate, no word was larger than “residents” in 23 of 25 of the word clouds associated with the large senior living and skilled nursing employers (1,000 or more employees). For the other two word clouds, “residents” was the second-largest word (in those cases, the top words were family or benefits).

The story was similar for the list of small to medium-sized companies (10 to 999 employees), for which the word residents took or shared the top position in 19 of 25 word clouds. In the remaining cases, the most popular words were people, job, team, love and family.

My unscientific findings line up with research that Robert Espinoza, executive vice president of policy at PHI, shared with those who attended an educational session about recruiting and retaining direct care workers during the recently concluded American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living Conference & Expo.

Espinoza said that at the end of 2020, PHI conducted a study of approximately 4,000 paid caregivers in Arizona asking them questions about the factors that would influence them to stay on the job or to leave a job.

“And while the study was fielded in Arizona, and Arizona is different from other states, I nevertheless think that the findings are relevant and insightful and in some ways could be applied” to workers across the country, he said.

In that survey, Espinoza said, 83% of respondents said the favorite part of their jobs was their clients.

“In all of our research, and all of our experience with workers in any part of the country, it always comes back to the reality that despite the challenges they’re facing, and the questions and concerns they have, most workers will say that their clients and the work they do are the most rewarding parts of their jobs,” he said. “And I think that’s relevant for when you think about recruitment and retention. There’s a true altruism, kind of a mission-based ethos, that drives how workers think and enter and leave these jobs.”

After writing about various aspects of healthcare for almost all of my career, I have seen how passionate those who work in long-term care are relative to those working in some other segments of healthcare, and that many believe that working in the field is a calling. Of course, those in the profession have known that for a long time.

Senior Star CEO Anja Rogers believes the industry needs to get the word out to potential workers.

“It’s critical that all of us in the senior housing industry seek new ways to position ourselves positively in the marketplace and reinforce the fact that our industry is a desirable career choice … one where all are valued and where individuals can truly make a difference in the lives of those they serve,” she said in a recent statement issued when Senior Star was named to the Best Workplaces list.

Many other leaders whose organizations made the lists cited associates’ compassion, commitment, dedication, servant leadership and sense of purpose.

At Legend Senior Living, 91% of employees surveyed for the Best Workplaces list said, “My work has a special meaning: this is not ‘just a job,’ ” according to Legend’s profile.

Projects such as the Best Workplaces surveys and PHI research give us evidence of what motivates workers and provide fodder for campaigns to recruit workers and then keep them. Sometimes we just need to spend some time with our heads in the clouds for a reminder.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here.