What Women Want—But Rarely Get

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, November 7, 2008

Only 9% of women who work in the healthcare industry are very satisfied with their work/life balance, according to a recent study by the Studer Group. On average, "women said one time per week that they have to make a decision where they feel they are deciding between their family and their job," says Quint Studer, founder and CEO of the Gulf Breeze, FL organization. "That is a sobering statistic."

More than 80% of the people who work in healthcare are female—roughly 10.7 million women. The percentage of female applicants at medical schools has increased from 32.7% in 1982 to 1983 to 49% in 2007 to 2008. And roughly 70% of people enrolled in an MHA program or undergraduate program in healthcare are women, says Studer. "It is time to better understand the unique and delicate issues of professional/personal blend facing the women who work in healthcare."

Nearly 8,000 women took the survey, including nurses (23%), administrators (22%), physicians (2%), and other healthcare positions like therapists and lab personnel (53%). Studer says the top three things that impacted work/life balance were:

  1. A supervisor that is supportive.
  2. Professional development.
  3. Concierge services.

As a working mother, I can relate to some of the survey findings. For instance, 46% of the women surveyed reported that they tend to their own needs only a few times per year. It can be tough to find time to treat yourself to something nice. Still, it's hard for me to fathom feeling every week that I had to make a decision that would be detrimental to either my family or my job. Healthcare is a nonstop 24-hour industry that holds people's lives in the balance. If an emergency arises like a sick or injured child, I can leave my desk. But the same cannot be said for an ICU nurse who knows there aren't enough critical-care nurses to cover her patients if she left.

Nevertheless, healthcare leaders must find ways to improve their employees' work/life balance—not just because it can lower turnover rates and improve employee satisfaction, but because it can improve patient care. A study by VHA's Consulting Services shows that in healthcare organizations with turnover rates exceeding 22%, the severity-adjusted average length of stay was 1.2 days longer than those organizations with the lower turnover rates (less than 12%).

Of course, improving the work/life balance for women is no doubt a puzzle for many male-dominated executive teams. But the solutions don't have to be complex—there are steps organizations can take right now. Here are six:

  1. Listen. Women don't want to be told what to do. They want to be asked for input, says Studer. For example, rather than telling women how you are responding to a challenge, consider saying, "Here is what is happening, what do you think?"
  2. Connect with women on personal level. This may be a Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus issue. Healthcare is still dominated by male C-suites that have created workplace cultures that are comfortable to them, says Studer. This may mean keeping personal and professional relationships separate. The problem is that many women want to work for someone who cares about them on a personal level. Studer says senior leaders need to create a culture that is best for everyone in the organization, not necessarily the environment that is most comfortable for them.
  3. Make sure that systems and tools work. No one wants to come to work every day only to encounter inefficient and ineffective processes. It's frustrating to have to work longer hours because systems aren't operating correctly. It is the senior leaders' responsibility to ensure that their employees are not wasting their time working around problems.
  4. Involve women in the hiring process. Women understand that teamwork is crucial in healthcare. As a result, they want to be involved in hiring their coworkers.
  5. Ask women what concierge services they want. You may be surprised what you discover. They may want help finding the right daycare, or homecare for family members, or getting oil changed in their car, or dry cleaning. Meet with your employees to find out what services would really benefit them the most.
  6. Be flexible. It's hard for healthcare organizations to offer flexible scheduling options if they have staff shortages or high turnover rates. But flexibility is an important component to attracting future healthcare workers and retaining the staff members that you already have, Studer says. For example, if you work with a nurse who suddenly has to cut back hours, often that nurse will eventually return to work full-time.

Now, I think it's time to treat myself to something nice.

Carrie Vaughan is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.
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