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HR & New Work

8 min read

Woman in white work clothes typing into smartphone
Woman in white work clothes typing into smartphone

How to improve employee engagement in healthcare to solve staff shortages

After a tough couple of years, the healthcare industry is in crisis as the shortfall in the workforce reaches record highs. Learn how engaging your healthcare employees can help to turn things around.

The picture is the same across the world — there is a worrying shortage of healthcare staff. The degree varies from country to country, but there is a clear, universal trend. We simply don’t have enough qualified workers in the healthcare sector to meet the demand. The World Health Organisation predicts that we will have a global shortfall of 10 million health workers by 2030

In the UK, the NHS has been facing record-high job vacancies in healthcare, with a projected half a million staff shortages by 2036. The picture isn’t any rosier across the pond in the US, where they are projected to face a shortfall of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034

What’s going on? If health is wealth, as they say, then the healthcare industry ought to be a thriving sector for any nation. However, it’s not as straightforward as that. Only 44% of US healthcare workers are reported to be highly engaged at work. Let’s delve into some reasons behind these healthcare shortages, and then we’ll address both why it’s vital to concentrate on employee engagement, and how you can go about it. 

What’s causing healthcare staff shortages?

The aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic are a huge factor impacting the healthcare sector. If you think it was stressful going to the supermarket wearing a mask, just imagine how it was for the nurses, doctors, and other healthcare staff trying to care for the sick, and keep themselves and their families safe at the same time. 

Healthcare professionals in the UK working during the pandemic were 3.3 times more likely to experience burnout compared to non-healthcare workers. In the US, 93% of healthcare staff reported experiencing stress, and 75% said they felt overwhelmed while working during the COVID-19 period. Studies also suggested that healthcare workers were experiencing a high level of PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) at this time. Is it any wonder that healthcare workers started to ask themselves — is it worth it? 

The working conditions are notoriously poor for the healthcare sector. With low wages, high stress, and heavy workloads, many workers are, understandably, seeking employment elsewhere. The summer of 2023 saw NHS strikes in the UK, with unions calling for wage increases to match the increase in cost of living. Inadequate pay is certainly another prominent factor leading to healthcare shortages. 

Chronic under-investment in education and training, with a lack of funding for special schemes and bursaries to help students get into healthcare, is also exacerbating the problem. 

In the UK specifically, Brexit has also contributed to healthcare shortages, as there has been a significant drop in healthcare workers coming to the UK from the EU. 

The solutions to these wide-ranging challenges are myriad. Still, there's one significant area that the healthcare industry can improve, which will positively impact stress, burnout, and general satisfaction levels at work — employee engagement. 

Why employee engagement in healthcare matters

Employee engagement in healthcare isn’t just about boosting satisfaction and retention (although that is a positive outcome). It’s also about better patient care. Almost in no other industry does the happiness levels of workers directly impact the safety and well-being of other human lives. So much so that nurse engagement is the number one predictor of mortality across hospitals, as highly engaged healthcare professionals make fewer medical errors. Not only does engagement improve attention to detail, but it also leads to increased empathy with the patients and better overall collaboration and communication with the wider team, leading to higher-quality care. 

Harvard Business Review found that greater employee engagement in hospitals resulted in lower overall costs due to fewer insurance claims, better treatment efficacy, and lower levels of hospital-acquired infections. This is backed up by data from the NHS in the UK, where infection rates decreased in trusts where a large percentage of the staff felt they could contribute towards improvements at work. 

Employee turnover in healthcare is extremely costly, both in terms of recruitment and training, as well as the potential impact on patient care. Engaged healthcare employees are less likely to leave their positions, reducing turnover rates. To put a number on this, the total cost of replacing a doctor and getting them up to speed is somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million in the US, illustrating a significant impact on the bottom line. 

Why employee engagement in healthcare matters

A highly engaged healthcare workforce results in:

  • Better patient outcomes
  • Fewer medical errors
  • Decreased hospital infection rates
  • Lower staff turnover
  • Fewer patient complaints 
  • Less money spent on lawsuits

Want to learn more about how to motivate your healthcare staff?

Read our article

The challenges healthcare workers face that impact engagement levels

We’ve already discussed the macro challenges facing healthcare professionals, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and typically poor pay, but what about the micro daily hurdles they face?

  • Shift work - Almost all healthcare staff work irregular hours and shifts, which can be hugely disruptive to work-life balance. 
  • Lack of digitalisation - Analogue modes of communication, such as announcements on a notice board or pen-and-paper shift scheduling, lead to inefficiencies and poor communication. 
  • Stress - Dealing with life and death naturally leads to higher stress levels, and many healthcare employees skip lunch or forgo breaks due to chronic understaffing.
  • Regulations - The admin and bureaucracy in the healthcare industry can lead to frustration and piles of paperwork for employees. 
  • Training - The onus is on healthcare workers to stay up-to-date with the latest medical information and training, which is hard to balance alongside long hours. 

How the healthcare industry can improve employee engagement

Now that we’ve set the scene for both why engagement in healthcare is so vital, and the challenges impacting workers’ satisfaction, let’s look at a few practical ways that healthcare firms can improve their employee engagement. 

Fostering a supportive work environment

We've established that the healthcare industry can often be stressful, negatively impacting engagement. Employers must proactively create a supportive work environment where all healthcare professionals feel safe, respected, and ultimately backed up by their superiors.  

The NHS defines a positive safety culture as one where the environment is collaboratively crafted, created, and nurtured so that everyone can flourish. They suggest doing this through:

  • Continuous learning and improvement of safety risks
  • Supportive, psychologically safe teamwork
  • Enabling and empowering speaking up by all

A supportive working environment ultimately comes from leadership, so senior leaders in the team must set an example by ensuring that safety practises are still adhered to, even during busy times, and acting as role models where poor behaviour is not tolerated. 

Promoting work-life balance and flexibility

As mentioned, shift work can have a detrimental effect on work-life balance. This can be improved for healthcare workers by adopting flexible scheduling where employees have the autonomy to pick the shifts that work best for them. A digital shift planning tool is one of the best options to transform this process for the better. 

Workplace wellness also comes into play here. Basic things like taking breaks, getting fresh air, eating healthily and exercising sound simple, but are often not on the agenda for healthcare workers. It’s up to employers to create a culture where workplace wellness is prioritised and rewarded, as it will ultimately result in fewer physical and mental health issues for staff down the line. 

Embedding gratitude and recognition into the culture

Feeling recognised and appreciated in the workplace is shown to improve employee engagement and morale. Healthcare can often feel like a thankless industry, as staff are too busy rushing around to express gratitude. Patients and their families are much more likely to show their appreciation than healthcare bosses, but feeling seen by senior leadership is an important element of job satisfaction.

Try introducing an employee recognition programme or initiative to highlight exceptional work. The important thing is that this gratitude can be seen publicly among the staff, which is hard to achieve in an analogue environment. A digital solution, such as an employee app, offers a space for recognition where all employees can get involved, increasing engagement and satisfaction levels. 

Encourage professional development

While training was mentioned as a challenge, it should also be viewed as an opportunity for healthcare staff — with the important caveat that your workers must be given adequate time during working hours to complete it. Offering workshops, certifications, and training programmes can boost employee engagement and morale by demonstrating that you are helping their professional development. 

Opportunities for advancement are seen as a major boon, so documenting and communicating clear paths for career progression will also help your workers feel more engaged. Fostering a culture where learning and development are cherished is key to making this work, as it can often be one of the first things to go to the wayside when workloads and stress get in the way. 

Use technology to boost engagement

Lack of digitalisation is a huge issue in the healthcare sector. With many employees categorised as frontline workers (meaning not based at a desk or in an office), their communication needs are unique. Important information should be available on the go, but this is very often not the case in healthcare. Introducing a digital solution, such as Flip’s employee app, is a surefire way to boost employee engagement. 

The tool will enhance communication, collaboration, and engagement through its social media-style newsfeed, instant messaging, and document-sharing function. Digital shift planning can transform engagement in a healthcare environment as managing schedules is as easy as a click of a button. Workers can request holiday days autonomously, leave feedback for senior team members, and what’s more, they can do it all from a smartphone — meaning they have everything they need from their pocket. 

Examples of healthcare organisations using an employee app to improve engagement

Karlsruhe Municipal Hospital: making information accessible to all

Since December 2020, Karlsruhe Hospital has been using Flip’s employee app to inform all 4,500 workers about important information. 80% of staff report that they are "informed immediately about last-minute changes" and 73% say they "receive all relevant information". 

Without an employee app

  • Information was shared via newsletters and paper announcements on the ward
  • Many employees received news late or not at all
  • Communication happened mainly via private messaging apps

With an employee app

  • Data protection compliant disclosure of information
  • Distribution of news in real-time
  • All employees can be reached — even those without a work email address or computer access

The app is so intuitive that there are no difficulties at all – especially for our editors who publish all the articles."

Claudia Arndt

Human Resources Karlsruhe Hospital

mhplus: elevating the onboarding experience

A top-notch onboarding experience sets the tone for employee satisfaction. Learn how mhplus, a major German health insurance fund, leveraged the Flip employee app to create a warm welcome. Discover the power of early interaction, fostering a sense of belonging, and improving overall employee experience.

Without an employee app

  • Complicated communication ran via different tools
  • No possibility of networking new employees with each other
  • No way to securely send sensitive and personal data

With an employee app

  • One communication tool for all locations, connecting all students and trainees
  • No more private messengers. All communication via privacy-protected Flip
  • Simple and modern usability for both users and system managers

Communication via Flip is modern and fun – and joy should always accompany everyday work."

Michael Hess

Head of personnel development mhplus health insurance company

Conclusion: it pays to improve employee engagement in healthcare

With demands for healthcare increasing, especially in countries with an ageing population, it’s critical that healthcare organisations find solutions for staff shortfalls. While some issues require intervention at government level, there’s so much that can be achieved on the ground level by improving the overall employee experience and engagement in the healthcare industry. Pay attention to the pain points of your staff, such as poor communication and high levels of stress. Digitalising processes must be seen as a high priority for any healthcare leaders if they want to succeed.

Discover how Flip’s employee app can transform employee engagement in healthcare through a social media-style newsfeed, shift planning and more. Book a call to find out more.

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