Healthcare industry turnover hovers around 18 percent, according to a 2004 survey by Compensation Resources. But this figure, just slightly above the 17.6 percent overall national average the survey found, doesn't tell the whole story: The US Department of Labor predicts that from 2000 to 2010, nine of the 20 fastest-growing occupations will be in health services, and the industry will grow 25.5 percent, adding 13.3 million new jobs.

Compound these facts with a 2004 American Health Association survey that revealed roughly one-third of hospitals are operating in the red, and you have a serious, growing problem: Not enough workers and a shortage of resources to entice them.

Why Employees Stay

In Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, authors Beverly L. Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans surveyed 12,000 people, identifying 20 reasons why they remained at a company. "Fair pay" was fourth -- not even in the top three. Chief responses were intangibles, such as "exciting work and challenge," which came in first, followed by "career growth, learning and development" and "working with great people." "Being recognized, valued and respected" and "meaningful work and making a difference" were sixth and eighth, respectively. Healthcare professions offer ample opportunities to satisfy employees in these areas.

Why Employees Leave

A 2003 study of 28,000 former healthcare employees by J. Walter Thompson Specialized Communications concluded, "More employees leave because of bad managers than for any other single, controllable reason."

As an HR professional, you can initiate and drive training and development programs to improve your managers' ability to inspire staff loyalty. "Different managers have different needs," says Irving Stackpole, president of Stackpole & Associates, a healthcare consulting firm in Brookline, Mass. "Surveys that ask the right questions can help you identify which supervisors are more effective and the precise areas where they need to improve."

Paul Copcutt, a medical industry recruiter with Square Peg Solution in Hamilton, Ontario, says some people leave the industry entirely, because "many healthcare workers are disenchanted with their profession and feel undervalued." He recommends that employers build job satisfaction by acknowledging and appreciating their employees' work. "Most employers aren't tying employee satisfaction to the bottom line," he says. "They should be."

A Case Study

At 73, Gordon McGuire is the relief pharmacist at New Haven Hospice in Connecticut. He and a full-time pharmacy director dispense medicine to hospice patients needing end-of-life palliative care. McGuire has worked at Hospice for 13 years and has no plans to leave.

McGuire sold his community pharmacy at 60 and retired for a few months before boredom drove him back to work. He appreciates the income, but that's not what keeps him working. "It's challenging," he says. "I'm learning something new every day, and I really feel like I'm filling a need. I'll work as long as I think I can be effective."

Benefits McGuire enjoys that can be adapted to fit your organization include:

  • Flexible schedule: Healthcare's round-the-clock nature means you can offer your employees a wide array of scheduling options. Having this kind of control over their jobs increases employee satisfaction.
  • Respect: Pharmacists are an integral part of the Hospice healthcare team and are valued for their expertise. At your organization, be sure all employees are appreciated for their role in patient care and the organization's success. This attitude of respect must be a cultural expectation, reinforced by individual managers.
  • Challenging work: Hospice pharmacists essentially serve as consultants to home-care nurses and physicians and face new challenges every day. Encourage your professionals to do what they love best. If nurses are drowning in paperwork, for example, consider streamlining procedures, adding clerks or implementing new technology. If doctors are frustrated by insurance issues, create a new manager-level position, and hire someone with insurance expertise. Ask your employees -- they'll tell you their frustrations and give you ideas on how to improve the situation.
  • Learning and growth: McGuire keeps up to date through constant reading and professional development. He finds it stimulating to learn new things and put them to use. Be sure you are encouraging employees to develop their professional skills as well as allowing them to flex them.

Create a Culture Change

From the HR perspective, you can have an enormous impact on your organization by working to establish the kind of culture that encourages employee loyalty. To gain executive support for this culture shift, develop a business case that ties the cost of employee turnover to the bottom line. Track individual managers' retention stats, and use your findings to custom design training and development programs to give each manager the specific skills and knowledge needed to better supervise, develop, mentor and satisfy staff.

At a higher level, strive to build your organization's reputation as an employer of choice -- a place where people want to work, are proud to work and for which they eagerly recruit those they know. Study companies that make business magazines' annual "best employer" lists. Which of their practices could you implement? How can you, as a change driver within HR, establish a more positive culture? This can be an exciting challenge for HR professionals, one that will test your leadership skills, enable you to work closely with your organization's top executives and provide you with a tremendous achievement for your resume.