Life Coaches and Grey’s Anatomy: Senior Living Gets Creative to Attract Workers

With unemployment hovering around 4% nationally, senior living providers are getting creative as competition for workers heats up, experimenting with new ways of supporting employees and attracting applicants.

For example, St. Louis-based Provision Living has hired life coaches to be available in its buildings, to help staff “break through different obstacles in their life,” Provision CEO Todd Spittal said Thursday at the 2018 Senior Housing News Summit in Chicago. Provision operates 14 communities, offering assisted living and memory care.

When team members encounter issues in their lives—ranging from trouble at home to more straightforward dilemmas like car problems—the life coaches can help work toward solutions. He has gotten “a ton of feedback” on this initiative, which began a few years ago, Spittal said.

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“Usually it comes in the form of people saying, ‘I can’t believe you provide this for us,” he said.

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Similarly, Koelsch Communities has sought out ways to help its team members address some of the challenges they are facing outside of work hours. With a specialty in standalone memory care, Koelsch is based in Olympia, Washington, and operates 34 properties in eight states.

About 70% to 80% of its workforce is between 18 years old and 35 years old, and many are single moms, said Koelsch COO Dan Williams. So, the provider offers vouchers to help its workers pay off student loans or pay for child care.

Both Koelsch and Provision have begun experimenting with 12-hour shifts, as well, and are seeing success with this model. Though it presents some challenges from an overtime perspective, having 12-hour shifts enables people to have more time off and also lowers the overall headcount needed in buildings, Spittal said.

By offering perks like these, the goal is to create a loyal workforce that can also spread the word to other prospective employees. Koelsch has implemented a “Great People Know Great People” referral program, offering fees between $250 and $500 to employees who refer new hires. So far, the program has given away slightly more than $50,000, Williams said.

In tight labor markets, providers are having to compete hard against local businesses for prospective workers. And this is not limited to large metros—Koelsch is paying its highest wage rates to nurses and caregivers in the college town of Boseman, Montana.

“I got a text a couple weeks ago [that] the carwash a mile away had a ‘Now Hiring, $15 an Hour’ sign,” Williams said. “We’re competing with the carwash. Fast food. Retail.”

Senior living is competing against these businesses but is also drawing inspiration from some of them. Like many other leaders in senior living, Spittal and Williams expressed admiration for Chick-fil-A’s ability to create a culture of worker engagement, driving a high level of customer service.

But while he’s studied Chick-fil-A closely, Spittal also emphasized how stark the differences are between senior living and a fast-food chain.

“I keep coming back to how different we are,” he said. “We don’t make chicken sandwiches, not to say that’s easy. We don’t close at 10 p.m. … we’re not closed on Sundays.”

Providers might also learn a few things from some organizations that are similar to senior living—namely, hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. That’s according to Pierre Verger, COO of Heritage Senior Living. Based in West Allis, Wisconsin, Heritage owns and operates 14 communities in the Dairy State, with independent living, assisted living and memory care.

Specifically, caregivers are attracted to hospitals and SNFs because they perceive them as more exciting from a clinical standpoint, compared with senior living, Verger said, arguing that this doesn’t have to be the case.

“How can we be more technical, to show that [our workers] do something clinical?” he said.

Heritage is implementing “beautiful screens” on its med carts, is doing daily flash trainings to constantly sharpen caregivers’ skill-sets, and is even modeling its uniforms on the long-running TV medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“This young generation, they [want to feel like] they’re part of Grey’s Anatomy,” he said.

Providers who think of themselves as more focused on hospitality than health care might balk at this approach. But Heritage is still emphasizing hospitality in its offerings, and in fact Verger himself previously owned a hotel and a restaurant with a Michelin star.

Instead, it’s about accepting the reality that acuity is rising in senior living and that even hospitality-forward providers are in the business of providing care. That message was delivered most clearly at the Summit by Jerry Finis, CEO of Pathway to Living, a Chicago-based provider with a portfolio of 30 communities, offering independent living, assisted living and memory care.

“You are in the health care business,” Finis told the crowd at the Summit. “And if you don’t think that way or understand that, you’ll get yourself in a world of hurt.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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