From the moment patients enter a hospital, they may encounter three types of employees: the "actively engaged," the "ambivalent" and the "actively disengaged." Patients' views of the hospital and the level of care they receive largely depend on the type of employees with whom they interact during their stay.

Actively engaged employees want to be part of the value a health care organization creates. They provide top-notch care to their patients, feel a strong emotional bond to their employer, and exert discretionary effort to provide better outcomes for their patients and their organization. Such employees also take pride in their work, embody the organization's mission, and proudly represent and promote the organization's brand.

An ambivalent health care employee displays limited enthusiasm about his or her job duties, giving patients the bare minimum. This employee often is more concerned with receiving a paycheck than providing quality care and rarely, if ever, volunteers for extra assignments and responsibilities.

The actively disengaged health care employee espouses a negative attitude and often provides short, rude responses to patients' questions. This type of employee ignores problems and is not concerned with the organization's success, causing more harm than good.

In its April 2009 white paper titled "The Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction and Hospital Patient Experiences," the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement (now called the Forum: Business Results Through People) found that engaged, happy, health care employees provide better care, leading to happier and healthier patients. Actively engaged workers often will go above and beyond for all the patients with whom they work on a daily basis. In fact, actively engaged health care employees are the best advocates for ensuring patient safety and satisfaction, striving to make the overall patient experience a positive one.

Best Practices for Building and Maintaining Engagement

Managers can use several best practices to increase employee engagement within their organization. They should:

  • recognize their employees for jobs well done;
  • help their employees develop both personal and professional skills by offering engaging training opportunities;
  • communicate with their employees openly, honestly and regularly;
  • provide equipment and resources to their employees that will allow them to perform their jobs more effectively;
  • foster an organizational culture that includes diversity awareness and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, work/life balance and workplace flexibility.

Employee recognition. Our research has found that recognition is the No. 1 driver of employee engagement. When health care organizations recognize their staff, employees become more engaged in their jobs. Failing to recognize employees for their achievements and neglecting appreciation for their efforts will lead to disengagement. Managers should use a combination of both informal and formal recognition as well as public and private recognition.

For example, a handwritten thank-you note or a brief email from a supervisor can go a long way toward increasing an ambivalent employee's engagement. Another way to recognize employees is to mention their accomplishments during weekly departmental meetings. Employees' commitment to an organization also can be recognized by giving a vacation day on an employee's yearly anniversary with the organization.

Skills development. Each manager always should ask his or her direct reports three questions pertaining to career growth and professional development:

  • "Where do you see yourself in one year?"
  • "Where do you want to be in five years?"
  • "What projects or tasks would you ultimately like to work on at this organization?"

With these answers, managers will be able to passionately coach their direct reports and motivate them to reach their goals. From business-specific courses that incorporate improvisation and role playing (such as those offered by Second City Communications) to HealthStream's online Learning Center™, organizations can offer employees a wide variety of fun, stimulating professional development opportunities. By actively participating in their direct reports' career paths, managers demonstrate their willingness to assist employees every step of the way.

Effective communication. Managers should encourage employees to ask for clarification if instructions are unclear. Regular staff meetings also should be held to keep employees in the loop on organizational initiatives — big and small. In addition, supervisors frequently should offer feedback on an employee's job performance, not just during the employee's annual performance evaluation. Such comments and guidance will help employees improve their performance more quickly than waiting to receive feedback during an annual performance review.

Sufficient resources.To ensure productivity remains at a high level, organizations need to provide their employees with first-rate, working equipment and supplies. This entails asking for employee feedback on products that might need to be replaced or refurbished and any equipment that should be purchased. Adding new, high-tech equipment to any organization will increase engagement and result in safer, more effective outcomes.

A supportive culture. Organizational culture plays a significant role in employee recruitment, engagement and retention. Promoting an environment of diversity and inclusion — and taking responsibility for the organization's actions on the environment, consumers, employees, communities and other stakeholders — cannot be overstated. By fostering an engaging, diverse and flexible workplace culture, organizations will help employees thrive.

According to a recent HR Solutions study, 62 percent of engaged employees believe work positively contributes to their physical health, while only 22 percent of disengaged employees responded positively. In addition, 78 percent of engaged employees feel work positively contributes to their mental health, while only 15 percent of disengaged employees responded positively. Based on such data, an organization may contribute to better physical and mental health, as well as higher engagement, by allowing flexible work hours and establishing a work-from-home policy.

Taking Action

Employee engagement is not a new concept. But if hospitals and health systems are going to improve patient safety and satisfaction, these organizations need to make engagement a top priority. Without investing time and money to understand their employees' thoughts, ideas and concerns, organizations run the risk of further perpetuating disengagement and, even worse, losing their top talent. Health care organizations that take engagement seriously will reap the benefits of fewer medical mishaps, lower employee turnover, increased productivity and higher patient satisfaction.

Michael P. Savitt is a PR/communications marketing manager at HR Solutions Inc., Chicago.