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Empowering support staff

While doctors and nurses get the most attention, it's important for employers to engage all their employees

David Weldon, Contributor

Mention healthcare employees to most people, and the two job roles that come to mind are doctors and nurses. But there are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of job roles in healthcare which contribute to patient care and operations, not one of which is unimportant. The unfortunate thing is that they too often go overlooked when the conversation turns to empowering healthcare workers.

“No one is in a position that their job isn’t important,” said Terry Bennett, president of the National Association for Healthcare Recruitment. “It is important that each employee know what their value is, and how what they do matters. The responsibility for that lies with the front line manager.”

[See also: Clear leadership, empowered employees lead to organizational health]

Articles and columns about empowering healthcare workers inevitably discuss the top levels of the organization, especially physicians and nurses that have direct patient care responsibility. That obviously makes sense. But some organizations stop there, Bennett said, and they miss opportunities to positively impact the patient experience.

In some respects, empowering workers in the healthcare industry isn’t really all that different from any industry, Bennett noted. It involves giving employees a voice at all levels of the organization. Empowerment means telling employees that the organization values their work and their opinions; that employees should feel able to express those opinions; that the organization encourages structured and focused risk taking; and that employees understands their role in the larger organizational mission.

“There are a number of ways to get staff more involved, and to improve the quality of care,” Bennett said, but it all starts with communication. “Ask questions of your staff,” Bennett advised. “Ask ‘How are things going?’ and ‘Is there anything that keeps you from doing your job?’”

Bennett stressed the need to get employee feedback by whatever means available. This communication can take many forms, Bennett said, including employee surveys, focus groups and corporate meetings.

But front line managers should make the effort to reach out on a more personal level, engaging each of their reports on a regular basis. This includes helping employees understand how their job role fits into the larger picture; how their work impacts other employees; and especially how it affects the quality of patient care.

“It is important for managers, and the organization, to seek out employee ideas whenever possible,” Bennett said. “And while there is always a potential for risks, some of the most successful organizations are the ones that aren’t afraid of risks.”

Still, Bennett noted that most organizations are not comfortable with risk taking, and that this is a cultural hurdle for many.

“There are not a lot of organizations that will take risks,” Bennett said. “It takes a certain type of leader to accept that.”

Short of risk taking, an organization wants to motivate workers to do their best. To inspire that, share their success stories, Bennett advised. An employee council can help in this area.

More than a morale booster

Empowering staff does much more than boost morale, noted June Fabre, owner of Smart Healthcare LLC, and author of Smart Nursing: Nurse Retention and Patient Safety Improvement Strategies. It improves patient safety, lowers healthcare costs and can even generate revenue.

Empowerment can lower healthcare costs by eliminating unnecessary steps in the care process, reducing the need for every matter to be brought to a manager’s attention. In one of Fabre’s blogs, she recounts the example of a patient asking for a banana, and the ensuing chain of command decisions that must be made before the patient ultimately receives the banana. Fabre’s example has the banana costing over $100 by the time it is given to the patient.

Fabre offered several steps toward creating an environment of empowerment, in which healthcare workers feel they are appreciated and have a stake in the organization’s success. Those include:

  • Hospitals should empower front line workers to be able to solve problems on the spot.
  • The organization should foster a culture of trust, which will encourage employees to act faster on important issues.
  • Employers should build a positive work environment, in which respect, consistency and integrity are fostered and protected.
  • Collaboration should be encouraged among all departments and employees, so that they collectively work as a team.
  • Staff meetings should go beyond operational matters to identify challenges and opportunities for the organization and solicit input on how to best address them.
  • Communication should be respectful, informative and frequent.
  • Grant authority to employees to solve problems as soon as they are identified.

Photo used with permission from

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