Employee engagement in healthcare: How much do you really know?

Employee engagement in healthcare is an essential strategic asset for any organization. Here’s our take on how to improve and turn it into a competitive advantage.
What we'll cover

The more some leaders talk about ‘improving employee engagement', the less meaning there is in their words — particularly in the healthcare sector.

The truth is, energy levels among healthcare workers are critically low. And engagement levels are too.

3,000 nurses recently took strike action in New York and the UK saw its largest-ever nursing walk-out. There is a rising wave of ‘quiet quitting’ in the industry and healthcare organizations are urgently looking for solutions to the growing pool of disengaged staff.

And yet, unless healthcare leaders can spot disengagement, understand what causes it, and actively improve it within their organizations, then these worrying trends will never reverse.

Keep reading for our distilled guide on employee engagement in healthcare. The information covered here will help you identify if your healthcare employees are disengaged and how you can start improving the situation right away.

Why using employee engagement as a ‘catch-all’ for positive behavior does it a disservice

The Blink team has spent many hours speaking with healthcare professionals, and we're often struck by the misconceptions about what ‘engagement’ actually means.

It seems to be one of those definitions that are hard to pin down — used interchangeably with almost every positive behavior an employee could display. 

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Engagement Toolkit, for example, defines engaged employees as:

“Better organised, happier, more satisfied, more loyal, healthier, more motivated, more productive, better at communicating, more prepared to go the extra mile and bend over backward…

Some of these behaviors are indicative of engagement, but their meanings are not the same. And that’s where we start to do true employee engagement in healthcare a disservice.

  • First of all, the ‘engagement’ described in this NHS definition is totally unattainable, because who exhibits all these behaviors all of the time? Adding this level of pressure to already disengaged employees is unlikely to inspire results.
  • Second, it uses vague, aspirational terms, such as “go the extra mile”. This risks presenting engagement as a ‘nice-to-have’ and not the must-have that it is, meaning leaders are more likely to dismiss it as a performance indicator rather than a practical, value-adding initiative.
  • Finally, it’s impossible to quantify the sum of all these behaviors at once. And if you can’t measure something, it’s impossible to improve it.
Little girl getting a vaccine in a healthcare clinic

Employee engagement in healthcare isn’t:

The good news is that the reality is far less complicated. Employee engagement in healthcare is achievable, specific, and measurable. 

But to understand what it is, let’s first look at what it is not

  • Satisfaction: A satisfied nurse will work their shift without complaint. They will do the work required and then they will accept another hospital job that offers a slightly better schedule.
  • Happiness: A care worker may feel happy at work because they have a lot of free time to go on their phone, but that doesn’t make them engaged.
  • Motivation: A medic may feel motivated to work hard because they want to get promoted, but that won’t necessarily correlate with higher engagement levels. Motivation is forward-looking, while engagement happens in the present.
  • Empowerment: An organization might empower its physios to make more autonomous decisions when working with clients. But the physio will only take that opportunity when they also feel engaged. Frontline empowerment doesn’t always translate into action; engagement does.
  • An absence of stress: A brain surgeon may feel stressed when operating but still be highly engaged. Some degree of stress can increase engagement. Gallup found that the overall percentage of “engaged” workers reached 38% in early May 2020 — i.e., mid-pandemic. The highest since tracking began twenty years ago.
  • Productivity: A hospital porter may be highly productive — i.e., completing their task list in a short period of time — without ever being engaged. The same porter may stay with the same hospital for twenty years, or take on additional, discretionary tasks, because he is engaged.
  • A fixed state: Engagement isn’t an intrinsic trait or something that is ‘achieved’ and then forgotten. It ebbs and flows.
  • The same for everyone: Engagement manifests differently in different people. The industry, role, and organization all affect how an engaged individual will behave. That’s another reason why blanket definitions don’t work: effective engagement strategies are personalized.
  • HR’s job: While HR plays a key role in employee engagement, an employee engagement strategy needs to stretch across the whole organization. From providing the right tools or employee engagement training programs for line managers. That means it’s the responsibility of C-Suite execs to initiate procedures and up to line managers to make them happen.

So what is employee engagement in healthcare?

Engagement boils down to a sense of purpose. 

When this is in place, employees can maintain an engaged state of mind — at least for a finite period.  

This explains why staff engagement levels went up during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The urgency of saving lives in never-before-seen conditions created a heightened sense of purpose.

But purpose isn’t enough to sustain engagement. We saw that when, just months later, exhaustion, worry, trauma, and burnout reduced staff engagement in the NHS to Great Recession-era lows

It’s helpful to think of engagement as a double-sided coin instead. 

On the one side, behavior: the emotional commitment an employee feels towards their organization. On the other, attitude: how much effort they are willing to dedicate to their patients.

For engagement to be successful, both sides of the coin need to be in play. 

That happens when further, more practical factors supplement the sense of purpose:

  • Clarity about the role
  • Receiving adequate support
  • Having the right equipment
  • Working in a position that plays to their strengths
  • Working alongside committed co-workers

These are the critical aspects managers must foster if they want to increase staff engagement.

Engagement is a mindset, but it also manifests as (visible) action

As we already touched on, engaged employees in the healthcare sector won’t necessarily be smiling, stress-free, or happily working longer hours. So how can you tell if your staff are engaged?

Here are some signs of highly engaged employees in play: 

  • Making eye contact with and escorting lost family members to where they need to go
  • Never forgetting to wash hands or check IV lines
  • Noticing the yellow “fall risk” bracelet on a patient in the lobby and helping them back to their room
  • Unrushed, active listening when a patient asks about their medications or other concerns
  • Being mindful of the need to be quiet at night
  • Ensuring all meals are delivered while still hot
  • Wheeling a bed-bound patient out of the care home to feel snow for the first time in years
  • Using a quiet moment to offer residents a hand or foot massage

Why healthcare employee engagement matters

Doctors, nurses, medical techs, and other frontline employees in the healthcare industry are under constant pressure. They are expected to deliver quality care and save lives — no matter how acutely funding is cut, no matter how scarce resources become, and no matter how many extra shifts they are asked to cover as available labor shrinks.

External and internal challenges can’t be allowed to disrupt the flow of care. The employee experience takes a back seat to the patient experience for obvious reasons.

And yet, employee engagement can never be a low priority in healthcare.

Healthcare employee engagement matters whether you’re in the ER or the exam room; in the care home or at a patient’s home, helping them age in place. Working in the medical field is inherently stressful, burnouts are inevitable, and unstable service levels resulting from disengaged staff can, quite literally, mean life or death.

Doctors performing a stressful operation.

The pandemic had a severe impact on the mental wellbeing of healthcare professionals all over the world. Burnout and anxiety rates skyrocketed and YouGov polling for the IPPR think-tank found that:

  • 50% of healthcare workers across the UK said their mental health deteriorated
  • 72% said their general health was put at risk
  • One in five claimed they would be likely to leave their job after the pandemic

Those employee engagement stats aren’t surprising at the best of times; after all, healthcare is an industry no one enters lightly. But we also need to appreciate the lingering impacts of Covid-19. How pressure increased tenfold and hasn’t truly alleviated since.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial that the healthcare frontline is valued, heard, protected, and reinvested in as we adapt to post-pandemic life.

What employee engagement looks like in healthcare

Engaged healthcare employees:

  • Are aware of what they should be doing at any given time
  • Have the resources they need to complete their work
  • Feel connected to the essential part they play in fulfilling your facility’s goals
  • Feel empowered to share their concerns and ideas with management
  • Get the sense that their contribution is valuable and valued

Employees who are engaged are also less likely to look for outside opportunities or accept unsolicited options because they feel emotionally invested in their work — unlocking great benefits for all healthcare stakeholders.

Young family smiling at new born.

Employee engagement looks like better patient outcomes

What’s good for employees is good for patients. 

A Gallup study of more than 200 hospitals found that engagement levels were the most significant predictor of patient mortality rates. Research by Harvard Business Review shows a direct correlation between patient experience measures and measures of employee engagement. 

Engaged employees are more likely to hold themselves to the highest patient care standards, whether that means double-checking a patient’s medication list or sanitizing their hands more frequently. 

This leads to better patient satisfaction levels and improved patient safety.

Employee engagement looks like money saved

What’s good for employees and patients is also good for a facility’s bottom line.

Turnover is a huge problem in healthcare. US hospitals have turned over 100.5% of their workforce in the last five years. In 2021, an annual turnover rate of 25.9% was pretty standard. 

This turnover is taking a significant financial toll on organizations.

Retaining good employees saves money, and increasing employee engagement leads to reduced staff turnover. In one Gallup case study, a hospital that raised its engagement score simultaneously saw a 7% reduction in turnover — saving $1.7 million.

How to boost employee engagement in healthcare

Incremental improvements can create a significant impact when it comes to healthcare employee engagement.

1. Streamline internal communication

Ineffective internal communication is one of the biggest barriers to employee engagement. In many healthcare facilities, employees can’t get the information they need without disengaging from their primary caregiving tasks.

They have to go to the nurses’ station, stop by a bulletin board, book a meeting, or go to a computer and log into the facility intranet. 

Learning about revisions to critical processes and procedures, updates to key initiatives, or changes to staff schedules means stopping everything — including patient care.

These activities interrupt the day’s flow and make it difficult for healthcare workers to re-engage with their primary responsibilities after each pause.

Healthcare workers are rarely found sitting at a desk, and improving the employee experience should be about reaching employees where they are instead of going out of their way.

A frontline engagement app, like Blink, is a great way to solve this problem.

What has Blink learned about improving employee engagement in healthcare?

Blink ran a 2020 pilot program in one of the UK’s largest private hospitals. Employees across several departments — nurses, porters, receptionists, cleaners, security guards, and more — were given the Blink mobile app to facilitate internal comms.

It cost £2 million less than building a native application but still gave all the facility’s frontline workers an easy way to get the resources they need while on the move.

The results? A 30% increase in engagement with internal communications, with patients receiving better, faster care from more engaged staff. Our easy-to-use mobile platform meant that employees could access all the information they needed, and leadership could share vital messaging without interrupting the flow of care.

2. Be the change you want to see

No matter what tactics you use to engage healthcare employees, you can’t just impose rules and regulations on them. You’ll have to lead by example, earning engagement as a result of targeted actions from your healthcare organization.

If you’re putting a new employee communication app in place, for example, then you’d be wise to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Asking staff to use your internal communication system is not enough. You need to take the lead and:

  • Populate the app with lots of useful information (giving them a reason to use it)
  • Direct people to check the app when questions arise (to create new habits)
  • Spend time on the app yourself, answering questions, sharing, and giving feedback (to show that it’s worth their time)
  • Push for employee engagement activities that actually work.

When employees know they can get the information they need in your app, they’ll be excited to use it, leading to increased job satisfaction and engagement with your internal communications.

3. Commit to keeping everything in one place

Staff bulletin boards have survived into the digital era because people know they’ll find information there when they need it. But this practicality shouldn’t be confused with convenience. 

As soon as multiple bulletin boards are in play, for example, or outdated information is left on display, these touchpoints quickly become frustrating to both those who post and consume the content.

When your internal comms team stores all information in a central location — one that’s accessible to everyone in the organization and quick to update — then your staff members will get what they need to know and save precious time.

Blink offers a content management Hub to keep all your files in one place. These files can then be accessed from anywhere with a mobile app.

4. Track and recognize expected behavior

One in five workers says their employer or seniors are “horrible” at giving recognition. 

The truth is, your employees will be more engaged when they understand what’s expected of them — not only when it comes to their primary caregiving responsibilities but internal tasks as well.

When you let your engaged healthcare employees know that what they’re doing is both seen and appreciated, they’ll feel valued and more connected to your organizational goals.

Regular feedback and employee recognition should be a big part of your healthcare employee engagement strategy. You can also organize events such as Employee Appreciation Week to give workers a chance to recognize each other’s accomplishments.

Healthcare workers sharing feedback to increase engagement.

5. Get feedback from healthcare workers

How can you tell if your employees have what they need for fostering their engagement? The simplest thing you can do is ask. An internal assessment may open your eyes to gaps you never realized existed. For example, an audit or a survey can help you answer questions like:

  • Do your employees feel like they’re making a valuable contribution?
  • Do they feel like they have a voice?
  • What types of communication methods do they prefer?
  • What roadblocks are keeping them from doing the best possible job?

To conduct an employee survey, the first step is to brainstorm the goals you want to meet and the insights you expect to get from the survey. To learn more, view this guide on conducting a workplace survey.

Creating your engaged workforce

With real action, you'll see real results. Healthcare teams will be more efficient and productive, improving patient care and feeling greater job satisfaction. And when your employees are committed to their work, they’re less likely to call in sick or quit. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

So why wait? Start building a culture of engagement in your healthcare facility today with Blink's frontline engagement app. It’s easy to get started and can be truly transformative for your employee turnover, team morale, and overall success.

Get started now

Healthcare employee engagement FAQs

What does engagement mean in healthcare?

Engaged employees are aware of what they should be doing at any given time, have the resources they need to complete that work, and feel like they have an essential part to play in fulfilling your facility’s goals.

Why is engagement important in healthcare?

Employee engagement is very important in healthcare. Various studies have found that engaged healthcare staff can lead to better patient care, lower operating costs, a safer workplace, and increased profitability.

How can healthcare improve employee engagement?

You can improve healthcare employee engagement by having a strong internal communications strategy, collecting and actioning employee feedback, focusing on employee recognition, and focusing on empowering staff.

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