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Values-Based Retention Practices Take Center Stage at Healthcare Orgs

Analysis  |  By David Weldon  
   December 09, 2021

Creative retention strategies are more critical than ever. Here are steps CFOs can take to hold onto healthcare workers.

(Editor's note: This is the sixth and final article in a series on the healthcare labor market from the CFO perspective.)

The retention of skilled workers has always been one of the most important tasks on any executive's to-do list. But it has become job No. 1 at many healthcare systems, as healthcare workers are reportedly leaving the field in droves.

Now, with COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations, and even deaths rising again, a winter surge is well underway and the country is seeing its first cases of the Omicron variant. With everything going on around the pandemic, many hospitals and health systems must ensure they are holding onto key staff.

"The healthcare industry is facing broad, complex staffing challenges, many of which existed prior to COVID and have been greatly exacerbated during COVID. Frontline team members are working long hours, taking extra shifts, and still riding the uncertain waves of COVID," notes Doug Watson, senior vice president and CFO at UnityPoint Health, an integrated health system.

UnityPoint provides care to both metropolitan and rural communities across Iowa, western Illinois, and southern Wisconsin. Headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa, UnityPoint Health has a network of more than 450 physician clinics20 regional and 19 community hospitalsseven community mental health centersfour accredited colleges, and home care services throughout its nine regions.

UnityPoint Health had approximately $4.6 billion in revenue in 2020, and its various entities employ approximately 33,000 employees. UnityPoint Health has made efforts to keep its employees engaged and motivated as a top priority.

"Our people matter, and leaders are prioritizing recruitment and retention efforts across our system," Watson says. "We are deliberately focused on these efforts—not just for nursing, but all key fields that support the patients we're seeing. We are implementing new solutions and revamping current efforts such as agency partnerships, nurse float pools, and new hire best practices. We will need to be flexible and nimble to meet the workforce challenges of the future. This work was underway before COVID-19, but the pandemic has accelerated the pace and urgency with which we are implementing these strategies."

Show healthcare workers they matter

One of the most significant steps healthcare executives can take in retaining the workforce during the pandemic has been to place greater value on the personal lives of workers—their interests, goals, and family and outside commitments.

"It is important to recognize that the demands placed on our healthcare professionals go beyond the workplace," Watson stresses. "In addition to navigating patient care during COVID-19, many healthcare professionals must juggle school and other challenges such as raising school-aged children in a pandemic, caring for aging parents, and managing their own mental and physical health needs."

Toward that end, UnityPoint Health executives are committed to creating an easier and more personal team member experience. The goal is simple: to show team members and their families how much they matter.

"Statistics show that work environment and a strong supportive culture are critical to retention," Watson says. "We believe our efforts in three key areas are particularly important in retaining our talented team members."

1. Offer flexible benefits. Alongside a comprehensive compensation package, UnityPoint Health offers benefits aimed at meeting the varying needs of diverse team members and their families. This flexibility is crucial to attracting and retaining the best talent, Watson says. Benefits include 401(k) and health savings accounts, health insurance, dental and vision insurance, flexible spending accounts, short and long-term disability, adoption assistance, leaves of absence, and child and elder care assistance.

2. Provide benefits focused on employee well-being. UnityPoint Health is committed to promoting team members' physical, emotional, and financial well-being through a host of programs, Watson says. These include paid time-off, an employee assistance program, wellness credit and rewards programs, an online fitness platform with access to over 600 classes, retirement and financial planning, team member discounts, and more.

"Throughout COVID-19, we have also provided offerings to support resiliency and recovery. Those include free visits with a therapist, a digital mental health platform, crisis support, relaxation and meditation resources, an online program to promote healthier thinking, and other tips, resources, and tools." Watson says.

3. Ensure that team members have a voice at the table when decisions are made.

"We've implemented a robust shared governance decision-making model to ensure that team members' voices are elevated and heard across our organization," Watson says. "Despite all the challenges health systems are facing, we are proud of the environment we've created together. Our team members remain highly engaged in their work with well over three-quarters engaged. In addition, 83% of team members report being comfortable in discussing concerns with their leader."

Training and career development opportunities now mostly on-the-job

A full slate of perks and benefits goes a long way in attracting and retaining employees, but equally important are providing training, skills development, and career development opportunities. This last point is challenging, since workers are already putting in lots of extra time on the job. That makes it difficult to take on formal career development programs. But the extra work and long hours are actually providing new career skills. It is up to the healthcare organization to figure out how to make that experience count toward formal recognition.

Related: How Hospitals Ensure Career Development Is More Than On-the-Job Reactions

"During this challenging time, opportunities for advancement have been especially important for team members," Watson says. "As a large health system with hospitals, clinics, and colleges across Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, we can offer a broad choice of advancement opportunities and career tracks. We support team members' personal and professional development through direct tuition assistance payments, discounts at educational partners, online learning, leadership development, provider development, and a referral bonus program."

"We are actively looking at ways to assist our team members to up-skill themselves through our own college's programs as well as partnering with other educational institutions and investing in 'on the job' training and advancement opportunities," Watson continues. "Nearly 91% of team members state they are acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective in their jobs, significantly above the healthcare benchmarks."

Involve employees in picking the retention and development programs right for them

Still, Watson acknowledges that the healthcare workforce is in flux, and the pressures on both employers and employees are intense. That makes it important for leaders get to know their workers, show empathy for what workers are experiencing, and engage with them. That role also falls on CFOs.

"I think it is critical to engage actively in the brainstorming efforts with your clinical leaders, operational leaders, and your human resources team to identify career development initiatives. Try to understand the unique environments in the communities you operate within and what programs you can create that will resonate with your employees and make a difference in your ability to sustain and serve the needs of these communities," Watson says.

"Some of the best ideas come from the people most affected or that have a vested interest in being able to develop and grow within your organization," Watson continues. "As a CFO, your other responsibility is to look at creating accountability so that as the organization invests in these initiatives, you can see results or identify issues early so that you can course-correct as needed."

Finally, Watson says it is important to recognize the role that values, culture, and a genuine organizational focus on attracting, cultivating, and retaining talent has on an organization's ability to be successful in a difficult and evolving time.

"This is hard work, and if your core culture is not aligned, or this is just a responsive strategy, it will be difficult to achieve sustainable results," Watson concludes.

David Weldon is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders. 


Healthcare executives must place greater value on the personal lives of workers—their interests, goals, and family and outside commitments.

One of the most important retention tactics is offering flexible benefits.

Equally important are training, skills development, and career development opportunities.

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