The age-old issue of staffing in senior living continues to be a challenge for community operators, and some aspects — such as competition from the fast-food and retail sectors — are beyond their control. The real key to finding and keeping good people, however, is largely within the organization’s scope, staffing experts say.

Operators can use various employment practices to become a “destination employer,” ranging from little perks to flex time. Ultimately, it comes down to showing interest, compassion and empathy toward employees, says Teresa Remy, director of consulting at LeaderStat.

“Good old-fashioned TLC and letting employees know they are cared about,” she explains. “Understand their needs, show interest in what is important to them, mentor them and form relationships.”

As most senior living professionals are proud to say, providing services for people is more than just another job — it is a calling and an identity. Expecting employees to make that deep investment in their work requires some reciprocity from management for staffers to feel appreciated. Otherwise, they are likely to seek job satisfaction elsewhere.

“While employees leave their employers for a variety of reasons, some of the biggest reasons include a feeling that their direct supervisor doesn’t care about them, a desire to earn more money, lack of flexibility in scheduling and issues with their management team,” says Peter Corless, executive vice president of business development at OnShift. “When employees feel that their contributions to their employer are not valued, we often see them seeking employment elsewhere.”

REASONS FOR LEAVING

Keeping employees happy means investigating and understanding why they become unhappy. Uncovering potential systemic problems takes initiative, diligence and, most importantly, communication. Management issues are at the top of the dissatisfaction list, Corless says, and organizations often are unaware of the conflicts that exist until an employee leaves.

“This provides little or no time to address the issue,” he says. “Sometimes this can be as simple as a lack of communication with the manager, especially if they work different shifts. By facilitating communication and conversation between managers, teams and employees, these issues can be corrected at the beginning.”

The senior living industry can be a career destination, and operators need to nurture those employees who want to grow in their profession. Too often, however, Corless says, workers don’t have clearly defined paths for advancement or a true sense of purpose in the organization.

“Instead of highlighting how employees can increase their income and grow into management roles, they are left guessing how to advance based on what they see around them,” he says. “They need critical feedback on how to succeed, and it begins with onboarding employees the right way.”

FEELING OVERWHELMED

The financial component certainly is important to an employee’s happiness and some workers will leave for more money elsewhere, even if it means switching industries. Offering a competitive salary is important, but operators also need to look at the work environment they provide so that employees can experience the fulfillment that comes from making a difference in residents’ lives.

Stress is a given for those who work in senior living — the nature of the business is demanding, and the workload can be exhausting. Yet there are ways to temper the work climate so that employees don’t feel consumed by their jobs.

The “low-hanging fruit” for relieving overwork is to always have enough staff on hand to fill every shift and to make sure the workload is equally distributed among everyone. More complex is creating a system that enables employees to achieve a “work-life balance” that gives them flexibility and options to handle the demands of family and employer.

“Implement work-life balance and really live it — don’t just say your company has it,” Remy says. “Be sure all divisions in your organization have it. Nothing is more demeaning than to not have a work-life balance when the perception is that everyone else in the organization does.”

Understanding each worker’s life demands is essential to determining how best to deploy them, Corless says.

“Employees will leave their job if their work schedule is a poor fit for their lives,” he says. “If the employee has children or serves as a caretaker to a family member, it could pose a conflict with work, causing that employee to seek another job more suitable to that lifestyle.”

Best-fit scheduling is a process OnShift advocates to ascertain each employee’s work preferences and availability so that shift coverage and workload is optimized.

INCENTIVES, PERKS

Staffing specialists note that one of the most positive trends in senior living is that incentives and perks are becoming more commonplace. And employees are appreciating these morale boosters, viewing them as the equivalent of — and sometimes even preferred over — pay raises. Offering perks provides operators with a blank canvass for creativity in showing appreciation for each employee’s hard work. Perks can range from gift cards to subsidized education and professional training, depending on each employee’s needs and career goals.

“When it comes to employee incentives, we’ve seen a variety of benefits and perks employers use,” Corless says. “From tuition reimbursement and more paid time off to dress down days and pay advances, employees are seeking perks that make their day more enjoyable and help alleviate stress. One of the more innovative incentives is giving employees access to their earned wages, between paychecks, to better manage expenses.”

Because education is the best pathway to career advancement, subsidizing employees’ tuition for job-related college or certification courses is an investment that pays dividends, staffing specialists agree. Internally, creating a mentoring program that assigns experienced employees in an instructional role can be very beneficial in helping new hires get acclimated to the required tasks and become familiar with the organization’s culture. The mentor can serve as a key contact for questions and professional support as the new employee learns what is expected on the job. Reward programs that provide cash bonuses to employees for referrals also are gaining momentum as a job perk, Corless says.

“Not only does this encourage positive behavior; it also helps motivate and encourage employees for a job well done,” he says.

Gift cards and “freebies” such as complimentary meals at work may seem like minor perks, but the positive feelings they generate are tremendous. Inexpensive gift cards for gas, groceries, pet day care — even a “spa day” — have proven to be popular among employees.

“Gift cards can be exceptionally valuable when given out as incentives,” Corless says.

SHOW APPRECIATION

It may seem like a no-brainer, but showing employees that their efforts are valued is a cornerstone to building their loyalty and devotion to the organization and the residents it serves. It gives them a sense of shared purpose, of belonging and being part of a team that is doing meaningful work.

“I really like the concept of ‘servanthood leadership,’” Remy says. “This involves the desire to serve others first and has little to do with power or position. People have a tendency to follow leaders who in their hearts have a true desire to serve and do what’s right.”