Rachel Hodgdon headshot
Rachel Hodgdon

Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of connecting directly with some of the most respected senior living owners, operators and designers from all across the country. From my seat as president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute, an organization committed to transforming health and well-being with our people-first approach to buildings, organizations and communities, I was interested in their perspective on several key questions:

  • How has the pandemic changed how you are doing business?
  • What are some of the market trends that you’re contending with?
  • What is it about WELL that is catching your attention? 

To the latter point, we’re seeing a wellspring of senior living operators of all sizes engaging with WELL. Some properties, such as Sunrise at East 56th in New York City, have chosen to pursue WELL certification, a comprehensive approach to advancing health and well-being using science-backed strategies. Others are using the WELL Health-Safety Rating, a roadmap for driving resilience into the center of business policies and operational plans.

Earlier this year, Enlivant achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating across 215 communities, whereas Jewish Senior Life has achieved the rating for its Rochester, NY, campus. All in all, more than 30 million square feet across 600 senior-focused facilities are engaging with WELL. 

It’s clear that the industry is still struggling with significant talent shortages. Low retention rates mean a higher cost to deliver services, whereas stagnant reimbursement rates and federal and state regulations make it difficult to offer competitive salaries compared with other sectors. I spoke with one operator who noted that it’s hard to recruit talent when workers can make a comparable salary in the fast-food industry flipping burgers or in other occupations that are far less demanding.

Meanwhile, in the wake of COVID-19’s massive impact on elder health, it is clear that the senior living sector is held to much higher expectations than other industries when it comes to providing safer environments for living and working. The pressure is extremely high for senior living communities to follow the science and find ways to communicate evidence-based best practices to residents and their families and to their staff.

Jay Weingarten, Partner at RDG Planning and Design, put it best: “Look. Everyone is tired, and they’re worn out from COVID. And they don’t want to talk about COVID. They want to talk about ‘How can we improve our dining? How can we help people find purpose? How can we create environments that are more hospitality oriented?’ Let’s talk about the ways that we are positively impacting people’s lives.” 

In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that WELL, and the strategies that are contained within it, can address all of these challenges. 

WELL can help facilities operate safely and with confidence, reduce employee stress and burnout and foster employee engagement and retention while ensuring the well-being of residents and their families. When you prioritize the health of your people, you can demonstrate tremendous leadership and attract and retain the best talent. We know that healthier people are more productive, and we’ve seen evidence of that in pre- and post-occupancy surveys of clients pursuing WELL across various sectors.

For instance, when the American Society of Interior Designers achieved WELL Platinum, its absenteeism drop by 19% in one year. CBRE Toronto and Vancouver offices achieved WELL certification and found that the hiring rate for new talent literally doubled. At Landsec, a WELL Silver Certified project in London, productivity rose by 30%. 

We all learned firsthand during the pandemic that buildings can be a first line of defense for mitigating the spread of disease. With masks coming off, enhancing air filtration and ventilation, supporting paid sick leave and making health services more accessible are some of the only remaining defenses. 

But putting people at the center of decision-making can do more than prevent people getting sick. It can help everyone thrive. Policies in place that support mental health benefits, better practices around diversity equity and inclusion and more intentional emergency planning have become part and parcel of business today. 

The research tells us that when we put people at the center of our decision-making, not only do they thrive, but so does the business. With today’s senior living owners and operators contending with record levels of stress, burnout and turnover, the evidence-based strategies in WELL provide the antidote to those challenges. 

Rachel Hodgdon is president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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