Michele Holleran headshot
Michele Holleran

With 20% of our employees gone as a direct result of the pandemic, and one in three clinicians considering leaving their current roles in healthcare, life plan communities are desperately scrambling to keep their staff.

One solution is to increase engagement among employees and their supervisors. Almost a quarter of the non-supervisor workforce currently is disengaged, and 40% of supervisors are not fully engaged, according to the Holleran national benchmark. This does not bode well for the field.

To improve engagement scores, organizations and senior living leaders must focus on creating humanistic workplaces that emphasize well-being. Especially important are interventions aimed at reducing burnout and enhancing mental health.

So many variables affect the mental well-being of individuals that sometimes it is a challenge to know where to begin. And although each individual staff member’s burnout, stress and anxiety may be caused by a varying and diverse set of factors, Holleran’s research on this topic has identified the four biggest stressors, according to our employee well-being database:

  • Workload at work,
  • Household bills,
  • Personal mental health and
  • Cost of healthcare.

Those four stressors are compromising the well-being of the aging services workforce like never before. Below are some best practices to address each of these identified sources of burnout.

Workload at work

Workload issues were cited by 41% of employees as a huge cause of stress in our survey.

One of the most important strategies for those who supervise and manage departments is to model the behavior of self-care. Leaders who never take a break, or who delay or shorten their vacations, or leave work way past the designated time send a signal to others that overwork is an acceptable practice. Giving permission to take care of oneself starts with the behaviors of the leader.

Putting simple norms in place within a department works well: everyone takes multiple breaks during the day, no after-hours texts or e-mails, crying “uncle” when tasks become overwhelming and help is required, setting clear and realistic expectations.

Creating environments at work that encourage rest and renewal — such as quiet rooms, meditation spaces and relaxing break rooms — also will take some of the pressure off the staff.

Household bills

About 37% of employees said that managing household bills is a major stressor for them. With inflation at an all-time high, workers are struggling to put food on their tables and gas in their tanks. This is especially challenging for those employees with school aged children at home and long commutes to work.

One suggestion is to catalogue workers who fall into those two categories and hold focus groups with both to identify solutions. Many campuses have increased the salaries and hourly rates of their employees in advance of minimum wage legislation requiring it.

Yet hourly wage increases are not always welcomed by all employees, particularly those receiving government assistance. Sometimes, a wage increase actually can decrease a household’s monthly income instead of hiking it. Asbury, a multi-site life plan community in Maryland, found this to be the case after it raised its workers’ minimum wage. Simply increasing pay, although a welcomed relief to some, is not necessarily a one-size -fits-all solution.

Employers wishing to address the household bill-paying challenge experienced by many workers might instead consider creating a fund to help with one-time unforeseen emergencies (such as a car repair invoice) to mitigate the effect of living paycheck to paycheck. Another approach some organizations are adopting is financial seminars and counseling for employees who need assistance with budgeting strategies.

Personal mental health

Managing personal mental health is a challenge for almost of third of employees.

Stress often leads to a lower sleep quality, especially for shift workers, who sleep while the rest of the world is awake. The pandemic has taken a toll on the physical health of employees and their family members, and physical health issues can lead to mental health issues. People have not kept up with their routine preventive care during COVID.

A decline in physical health can lead to a decline in one’s mental health, which in turn affects worker productivity. To counteract the effects of stress on the body, some employers allow their employees use of fitness and aquatic offerings at certain times when residents aren’t using those facilities. Employee wellness programming is becoming more popular, as is giving employees time off to go to the doctor or dentist.

Nutrition and food scarcity are a concern. Statistically, those employees with lower incomes are disproportionately affected. Consider using nutritionists on your staff to help educate workers about healthy food choices. Good nutrition plays a key role in our mental health. Communities have also started to freeze nutritious family meals and offer these to employees so they can have a meal ready to serve once they return to their homes.

Studies show that 72% of employees want their employers to champion mental health in the workplace. One of the most effective strategies leaders use to reduce stress is to encourage a humane workplace, where friendships are celebrated and encouraged. Sixty percent of workers in a recent survey stated that having a good friend at works makes them more eager to show up and better cope with any challenges that may exist throughout the day.

Cost of healthcare

About 30% of senior living employees cite the cost of healthcare as a stressor. Social workers are employed by many affordable housing communities to assist residents with negotiating the healthcare system to apply for special assistance around healthcare costs. Why not offer the services of those knowledgeable social workers to employees? In addition to government-sponsored programs, hospital and outpatient costs sometimes are covered by charity care if the client is low-income.

Many life plan communities now have dental and medical clinics on-site for residents. Why not include employees so they are eligible for these services at discounted cost?

And a most obvious solution is to have human resources investigate the best employee assistance programs available instead of automatically defaulting to the existing plan. One provider, Shenandoah Valley Westminster Canterbury in Winchester, VA, conducted Holleran’s employee well-being survey, discovering from the feedback that access to mental health counseling through an existing EAP was especially challenging to its workers. A change was implemented to correct the issue.

The bottom line

The most effective way that organizations and their managers can help reduce stress and burnout is to acknowledge that well-being of individual employees is a priority. Doing so requires creating a workplace where there is psychological safety, meaning that people feel “it’s OK not to be OK” some days.

In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel supported and accepted when they are having well-being struggles. They feel confident that if they go to the supervisor to talk, they will find an empathetic ear.

Some organizations are encouraging learning circles and open conversations around the importance of well-being at work. Others are going above and beyond for employees who have challenges at home. One supervisor in a Mississippi senior living community discovered that her direct report was experiencing domestic violence and helped this employee find shelter and resources for her and her children.

The human resources function is being renamed “people operations” throughout corporate America, with the emphasis on people, not paperwork. The paperwork still needs to get accomplished, but it is secondary in importance to making sure that employees are heard, solutions to their issues are found, and that fear of retribution is eliminated.

Making work a “safe” place is the priority. In places such as these, turnover is reduced, and engagement increases. Engaged employees are three times less likely to leave their campuses than those who are disengaged, which saves the organization on average $20,000 per employee in turnover costs.

The business case for investing in employee well-being is clear. With turnover as high as 40% in some senior living communities, the cost is staggering. Reducing turnover by half as a result of implementing a “well-being friendly” workplace culture would be a worthwhile goal for any senior living community.

Clearly, new rules are emerging in our workplaces as a result of the pandemic. Finding ways to take the pressure off of employees, and providing empathy and emotional intelligence training to supervisors, is more important than ever.

Michele Holleran, Ph.D., MBA, is CEO of Holleran Consulting, which she founded in 1992.

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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