Marty Stempniak, Staff Writer

They’re everywhere — in your billing department, food services, human resources or janitorial — and they’re secretly sabotaging your nursing home, one day at a time. 

I’m not talking about gremlins, but disengaged employees. We’ve all been there, starting a new job with vim and vigor, only to quickly feel crushed by the weight of our daily responsibilities. For Denise Boudreau-Scott, it took her only about three days.

The noted consultant and aging-services expert detailed that transformation during a keynote speech Wednesday at the 2018 LeadingAge Illinois Annual Meeting and Expo, in Schaumburg, IL. For years, she dreamed of a career in elder care to feed her addiction to making seniors smile. She finally landed that dream job as a dietary aide, but was crushed to find that supervisors would rather she hurry up and sling grub than make chitchat or help residents walk to their tables. She felt invisible and her residents likely felt the same way, too.

“Three days. That’s all it took for me to be inspired beyond belief, on fire about my job, to dragging along like one of those zombie employees,” she told attendees.

“How can we rekindle that inspiration?” she added later. “Because I am convinced, if we can help our team members to feel honored and respected, then they will do the same for the people who we serve.”

Now, I know that you’ve got RCS-1 and Medicare cuts and all sorts of other much more pressing concerns on your plate. But Boudreau-Scott insisted that, while employee engagement might seem like a “fluffy” topic to most nursing home administrators, there is actually a business case to be made for emphasizing this concern. Employee engagement, she said, is the “money tree” growing in your facility’s backyard, that your parents insisted was fictional.

She threw out one stat to prove that point: Those who can make a measurable improvement in employee engagement, if they’re struggling in this regard, can expect to see a roughly 25% reduction in turnover. There’s a trickle-down effect, too, as reducing turnover can bolster customer loyalty, improve resident safety and enhance profitability, just to name a few.

Boudreau-Scott gave the example of one single-site provider that was spending $6,000 a month on agency costs  and $10,000 on overtime and losing about $50,000 in revenue a month because it couldn’t move residents in, since it didn’t have enough employees. All told, she estimated that this one provider was leaving about $800,000 on the table with those missed opportunities. 

And if this isn’t your organization right now, it will be soon, given the aging population that’s both pushing your employees toward retirement, and bumping more seniors into your beds. In the next five years, the profession is going to need about 1.3 million more nurses and nurse assistants to help treat that population, she said.

I assume that by now you are probably either sufficiently convinced that this topic is worth your time, or stopped reading a long time ago. If you’re on board, Boudreau-Scott offered long-term care pros four steps they can take to slay the zombie employees roaming their halls, and reconnect with the passion that fueled them toward the field:

1)  Awaken to how and why things should be different: How did you get into this line of work? What keeps you coming back to it? Tips she offered to get started included sharing stories about what connected you with this profession, setting weekly goals, getting creative and going out for lunch or coffee to chat over those stories, and then tapping into the power of them.

2)  Assess where strengths and opportunities exist: The best way, she said, is to ask people questions, and stop assuming that all of the pertinent info is housed in your head. Talk to your team members, residents and their families. Employ a neutral party to gather unfiltered feedback from all of those stakeholders, and then follow up on those surveys to find ways to improve engagement.

3)  Align goals to reach those possibilities: This might mean prioritizing what you’d like to tackle from your focus group feedback. Define what success will look like in your organization, Boudreau-Scott said, and establish measurements to gauge that success. Set dates to meet your goals and, by all means, if you succeed, celebrate those victories.

4)  Anchor the changes made into place so they can sustain: Sometimes, change can be like a taco. You spend all of this time putting it together only to have the tortilla spill out on you, and your work falls apart. Find out the secret sauce to sustainability in your org, she said. Think about that anchor from the start and determine the data points you’ll need to audit along the way. Establish regular check-in points to make sure you haven’t slid backward and then set aside time in your busy day to research innovation.

Boudreau-Scott assured skilled-nursing folks in the audience that this course of action would take care of their zombie problems, once and for all.

“Follow that four-step process, and I guarantee you will have a team of people that are so incredibly committed to their work,” she said. “You will have a team of people that no longer feel they are invisible, and most importantly, you will never have a resident that feels they are are invisible.”

Follow Staff Writer Marty Stempniak @MStempniak.