Create a ‘thriving workforce’ through empowerment

In the January/February edition of the Harvard Business Review, business professors Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath focused on what it means for staff to thrive in their work environment. In these writers’ estimation, a thriving workforce is “…one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own. Thriving employees have a bit of an edge—they are highly energized—but they know how to avoid burnout.”

Spreitzer and Porath’s components of such a thriving workforce are learning (“the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills”) and vitality (“the sense of being alive, passionate and excited”).

The issue of employee turnover continues to be of epidemic proportions in the senior care industry. When I became the foodservice director in a nursing home 20 or so years ago I remember noticing right away that staff turnover was rampant, and it directly affected the quality of the dining experience. Even in the more upscale assisted living communities, despite beautiful furnishings and upscale menus, the lunch servers dressed like housekeepers, because they were housekeepers—who resented this part of their job. The evening servers were teenagers trying their best, but they had no training and little service sense.

Mealtimes were efficient but mechanical. These were not enjoyable dining experiences; they weren’t warm or satisfying experiences for either residents or staff.

Clearly, these employees were not thriving. They received little pay and training. They did not feel valued. The situation inspired me to get involved in service improvement and ultimately to develop my owntraining program. How could I help energize and empower these employees, so they felt like part of the community they were serving? How could I help their employers retain staff, saving time and money in recruitment and orientation?

Beyond tangible, teachable skills, like how to set a table properly, training for thriving employees includes helping them break out of the status quo. When employees are able to take small risks in the service of making the community work better, they feel empowered and engaged. They begin to feel the kind of ownership that makes them want to stick around and help their organization grow.

Spreizer and Porath assert that, “Breaking out of the status quo can trigger the learning so essential to thriving.” They describe a supervisor who invested the lion’s share of his efforts in mentoring and encouraging staff members who “shared his passion for breakthrough ideas.” As his programs delivered more and more positive results, the organization as a whole gained momentum in moving toward a “radically different future.”

In a recent training situation, I observed a stunning example of how a little learning, a little empowerment and a little risk taking can go a long way. A seasoned nurse began the training by stating it would have no relevance for her. She felt that serving in the dining room was not part of her job description. She was not interested in new ways of doing things and grudgingly learned and practiced the serving steps with her colleagues.

Then, a light bulb seemed to go on during our conversation about how mealtime socializing can move people to get along better.

On the final day of training, as we talked through the value of individual initiative, the nurse surprised all of us with her own story. At the evening meal the night before, she chose to pour coffee and water for the residents. The serving staff was genuinely appreciative; the nurse was overwhelmed by their graciousness and continued gratitude for her help. She was amazed by their reaction, as well as the residents’ acknowledgement. She committed to continue helping in the dining room.

One key here is that the nurse was able to surprise herself by taking a risk and choosing to try something new. Pouring coffee in the dining room is a small act, but a significant one. It represents the learning and vitality that Spreitzer and Porath are talking about. Given the rewards gleaned from this act, the nurse may be inspired to break out of the status quo in other ways that help her and her organization grow. (Perhaps most significant is that this act breaks through the perceived barrier of “my job is more important than yours.”)

Spreitzer and Porath’s research reinforces how happy employees benefit their companies: “Across industries and job types, we found that people who fit our description of thriving demonstrated 16 percent better overall performance (as reported by their managers) and 125 percent less burnout (self-reported) than their peers. They were 32 percent more committed to the organization and 46 percent more satisfied with their jobs. They also missed much less work and reported significantly fewer doctor visits, which meant health care savings and less lost time for the company.”

These numbers illustrate the value of training toward thriving—a common-sense investment—along with tasty food and pleasant surroundings for the seniors living in our care.

Topics: Facility management , Staffing