A business case for employee well-being interventions

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

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

To improve engagement outcomes, organizations and senior living leaders must focus on creating humanistic workplaces that emphasize well-being. Interventions aimed at reducing burnout and improving mental health are particularly important.

So many variables affect people’s mental well-being that it’s sometimes a challenge to know where to start. And although the burnout, stress and anxiety of any individual staff member can be caused by a different and varied set of factors, Holleran’s research on the topic identified the top four stressors, according to our employee well-being database:

  • workload,
  • utility bills,
  • Personal mental health and
  • Health care costs.

These four stressors are compromising the well-being of an aging service workforce like never before. Below are some best practices for dealing with each of these identified sources of burnout.

Work load

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 self-service behavior. Leaders who never take a break, or who delay or shorten their vacations, or leave work after the allotted time, send a signal to others that overworking is an acceptable practice. Giving permission to take care of oneself starts with the behavior of the leader.

Establishing simple norms within a department works well: everyone takes a few breaks during the day, no texting or emailing after hours, calling “uncle” when tasks get overwhelming and help is needed, setting clear and realistic expectations.

Creating workplace environments that encourage rest and renewal – such as quiet rooms, meditation spaces and relaxing break rooms – will also reduce some of the pressure on staff.

Utility bills

About 37% of employees say 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-age children at home and long commutes.

One suggestion is to catalog workers who fall into these two categories and conduct focus groups with both to find solutions. Many campuses increased their employees’ wages and hourly rates before minimum wage legislation required it.

Yet hourly wage increases are not always welcomed by all employees, especially those on public assistance. Sometimes a wage increase can actually decrease a household’s monthly income instead of increasing it. Asbury, a life-plan community in Maryland, found this to be the case after raising the minimum wage for its workers. A simple pay raise, while a welcome relief for some, is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution.

Employers wishing to address the household bill-paying challenge that many workers face may instead consider setting up a one-time contingency fund (such as a car repair bill) to mitigate the effect of living paycheck to paycheck. Another approach some organizations are taking is financial seminars and counseling for employees who need help with budgeting strategies.

Personal mental health

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

Stress often leads to poorer sleep quality, especially for shift workers who sleep while the rest of the world is awake. The pandemic has affected the physical health of employees and their family members, and physical health problems can lead to mental health problems. People are not keeping up with their routine preventive care during COVID.

Deterioration in physical health can lead to deterioration in mental health, which in turn affects worker productivity. To counteract the effects of stress on the body, some employers allow their employees to use the fitness and aquatic offerings at certain times when residents are not using these facilities. Employee wellness programming is becoming more popular, as is giving employees time off to see a doctor or dentist.

Nutrition and food shortages are a problem. Statistically, lower-income workers are disproportionately affected. Consider using nutritionists on your staff to educate workers about healthy food choices. Good nutrition plays a key role in our mental health. Communities also began freezing nutritious family meals and offering them to employees so they could have food ready to serve once they returned to their homes.

Surveys show that 72% of employees want their employers to support mental health in the workplace. One of the most effective strategies leaders use to reduce stress is to foster a humane workplace where friendships are celebrated and encouraged. Sixty percent of workers in a recent survey said that having a good friend at work makes them more eager to show up and better able to deal with any challenges that may arise during the day.

Health care costs

About 30% of older workers cite health care costs as a stressor. Social workers are employed by many affordable housing communities to help residents negotiate with the health care system to apply for special assistance around health care costs. Why not offer the services of these experienced social workers to employees? In addition to government-sponsored programs, inpatient and outpatient costs are sometimes covered by charity care if the client is on a low income.

Many life plan communities now have on-site dental and medical clinics for residents. Why not include employees so that they are entitled to these services at a reduced price?

And the most obvious solution is for HR to research the best employee assistance programs available, rather than automatically sticking with the existing plan. One provider, Shenandoah Valley Westminster Canterbury in Winchester, Virginia, conducted a Holleran survey on employee well-being, finding from feedback that accessing mental health counseling through an existing EAP was a particular challenge for workers. A change was introduced to correct the problem.

The bottom row

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

In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel supported and accepted when they experience problems with their well-being. They feel confident that if they go to the supervisor to talk, they will find a sympathetic ear.

Some organizations encourage learning circles and open conversations about the importance of well-being in the workplace. Others go above and beyond for employees who have challenges at home. A supervisor at a senior living community in Mississippi discovered that her direct report had experienced domestic violence and helped that staff member find shelter and resources for her and her children.

The HR function is being rebranded as “people operations” in corporate America, with the emphasis on people rather than paperwork. Documentation still needs to be in place, but is secondary in importance to ensuring that employees are heard, that solutions to their problems are found, and that fear of retribution is eliminated.

Making work a “safe” place is a priority. In places like these, turnover goes down and engagement goes up. Engaged employees are three times less likely to leave their campuses than disengaged employees, saving the organization an average of $20,000 per employee in turnover costs.

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

Obviously, new rules are emerging in our workplaces as a result of the pandemic. Finding ways to relieve employee stress and providing managers with empathy and emotional intelligence training 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 not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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