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One bad apple

Providers are focussed on staff retention, but they should be equally worried about staff engagement, writes Cathy Wever.

Wanted: nursing staff. Qualifications a must. Experience highly regarded. Enthusiasm and a positive attitude essential.

A clear priority for health industry employers today is recruiting and maintaining an engaged, positive cohort of staff. In an industry based on the provision of quality care, there is certainly truth to the old adage that one bad apple can spoil the whole bag.

Former federal minister for aged care, industry consultant and facility manager, Peter Staples, says employees who are unhappy in their jobs can demoralise the entire team and bring down the positive atmosphere in an aged care facility.

“One thing aged care residents pick up on very quickly is atmospherics. Residents can get agitated very quickly and start to feel insecure when they know those caring for them are disgruntled. The more you can keep your employees happy, the better.”

Yet the difficulty for many employers is that the use of traditional incentives to motivate and engage staff – higher rates of pay and performance bonuses for example – are simply not practical in a hospital or aged care setting, where tight budgets are a daily reality. Therefore, leading employers are increasingly looking to boost staff morale and maintain high levels of employee job satisfaction.

Staples identifies three key areas for employers to focus on. First, he says aged care providers should ensure they are receiving their full government funding entitlements.

“Any extra revenue is important, and can be used to pay for things that improve working conditions.”

It’s also vital that the “junk time” be taken out of employees’ working days, he says.

“Doing repetitious, low value tasks is not enjoyable and there is often a way to get such things done more efficiently through the use of appropriate systems or technology.”

Finally, he says employers need to help staff to deal with the other two thirds of their lives.

“At the facilities we manage, we recognise that just as our staff take work home, they also bring the rest of their lives to work. We have an employee assistance program (EAP) that supports our staff in a variety of ways. One is that we provide access to free counselling services, whatever our staff need it for, be it personal issues, financial concerns or grief management, which can be a big issue for staff working with the elderly.”

One employer leading the way in terms of caring about and valuing its employees is aged care, disability and education services provider, Villa Maria. With a 950-strong workforce, Villa Maria was recently awarded the Victorian government’s fair and flexible employer recognition award, which manager, HR and learning, Darren Mannix says reflects the organisation’s commitment to recruiting and retaining high quality staff.

“The award recognises Villa Maria’s commitment to providing flexibility for our staff, and we find this certainly helps us to retain the quality people we need to run our services and provide care and support to more than 5000 people across Victoria.”

Villa Maria’s extensive range of flexible work options recognise that employees have lives outside of work, and that striking the right balance is good for both individual staff members, and for the organisation as a whole. Options for staff include flexible start and finish times, alternate work location options, flexible leave arrangements, job sharing, 48/52 leave arrangements, paid maternity leave and flexible return to work options.

“While most of these flexible work arrangements don’t cost a lot to implement, they certainly create significant savings for our organisation in terms of recruitment costs,” says Mannix. “Plus, high staff turnover can affect the morale of the whole organisation. Around 85 per cent of our staff return to work after taking maternity leave and we have only had 9 per cent of our entire workforce leave the organisation in the past two years.”

Nada Bendall agrees that unhappy workers can affect the whole organisation. Bendall is the principal consultant at Integral Care, which regularly conducts research into aged care industry best practice. She says a critical – and very low cost – way employers can ensure their team are happy and engaged at work is often overlooked.

“One of the most important things employers can do is to build good employer-employee relationships. We find that simple tools like performance appraisals are often done poorly. When they are done properly, performance appraisals are a terrific instrument for talking to staff and providing them with positive feedback. You can really boost morale this way and ensure your team feels valued and listened to.”

It’s essential for employers to actively listen to their staff, so that they can act quickly and effectively to resolve any issues that may be decreasing staff morale, she says.

“Your interventions are only as good as your research and measurements,” advises Bendall. “Something as simple as a staff questionnaire can be a good starting point for managers who want to know more about what makes their staff feel valued, and what makes their time at work difficult or unenjoyable. It can be anonymous, and can help employers take the right steps to cement an engaged, positive team.”

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