The senior living industry has learned to spin beautiful tales to win over investors and lenders — but, providers need to use this skill to win over their own employees. Companies from outside the industry, like supermarket chain Publix, could offer paths forward.
That was one of the themes discussed during a CEO Summit on Workforce Innovation for the senior living industry held in Chicago earlier this month. Senior living industry association Argentum and Great Place to Work co-hosted the summit in coordination with the National Investment for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
Nearly 20 CEOs from senior living companies such as LCS and Belmont Village attended the event. They were joined by executives and former executives from Great Places to Work companies in a variety of other industries, including Hilton, Disney, Home Depot and Publix.
The event was inspired by an innovation summit NIC hosted in February, according to Dr. Jacquelyn Kung, CEO of Activated Insights, the senior care division of Great Place to Work that puts together the aging services list each year. That summit identified workforce development as one of the biggest targets for innovation in the industry.
“Activated Insights wanted to bring the best minds and biggest providers together to catalyze the conversation on workforce and move our industry forward,” Kung told Senior Housing News. “When senior living providers come to us to certify or to get employee engagement solutions, everyone is eager to learn from other industries. Our best practice library is incredibly popular.”
One of the big takeaways that resonated with the senior living CEO audience was the importance of storytelling, like the kind Lakeland, Florida-based supermarket chain Publix has successfully employed for many years.
Publix, which has for 22 years held a place on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, is a good example to emulate. The company ranked no. 12 on the most recent national list, with 88% of its surveyed employees identifying it as a great workplace.
‘Through the heart’
Attracting new talent and keeping current workers is an urgent need across the industry. The senior living industry will need to have employed about 1.2 million workers by 2026 to keep up with demand, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which are often highlighted by industry association Argentum. Meanwhile, turnover remains a seemingly intractable problem in senior living, particularly among frontline positions.
In terms of attracting and retaining those frontline workers, senior living and the grocery industry face similar challenges. In both supermarkets and in senior living communities, frontline work runs the risk of being perceived as menial.
That’s where the importance of storytelling comes in: Telling a good story could mean the difference between snagging a promising new hire and watching them walk out the door, by showcasing the importance of the work they do, and the profound impact it can have on people’s lives.
In other words, storytelling is a tool of persuasion that can be used to strengthen a company’s culture and make employees feel proud about what they do for a living, according to Alison Smith, a former senior vice president of HR at Publix who spoke during the event.
“The most powerful way that you can engage employees is through the heart,” Smith, who now works as a consultant, told SHN. “The use of storytelling is something that can help show people that, when you work here, this is the impact you can have.”
And senior living providers can learn much about storytelling from the retail and hospitality sectors, according to Robert G. Kramer, founder and current strategic advisor at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
“There are aspects of the service economy and the retail sector that are much further along in understanding how to identify with and speak to the emotions and aspirations of their customers than we are,” Kramer told SHN. “We tell stories stories about meeting care needs, but ultimately that’s not what brings real joy and that doesn’t create an environment that attracts people.”
The concept of using storytelling as a tool for senior living is not new. But it takes on a renewed importance as industry providers seek to differentiate themselves and attract and retain top industry talent in job markets where unemployment is low and opportunities for workers are numerous.
Belmont Village Founder and CEO Patricia Will said Smith’s emphasis on storytelling affirmed that the Houston-based company is on the right track with regard to thinking about culture.
“For me, it was a validation rather than a revelation,” Will told SHN. “Publix has demonstrated how a ‘culture of caring,’ which we share, can really make a difference.”
One way that senior living providers can tell better stories is by examining the ways that other companies tell them. From the safety razor Gilette to insurance giant Humana, large companies and brands have long used carefully crafted narratives to break through the noise.
For Publix, one powerful story centered on a bunny rabbit — a stuffed one, that is. Smith showed the Great Place to Work audience a CBS News video of an instance where Publix employees helped a three-year-old recover a toy bunny she left at a supermarket in Alabama.
When the store’s manager, Mike Gayheart, didn’t find the bunny in the supermarket, he went so far as to dig through a local landfill in search of the missing hare. In the end, he was successful, and the girl was reunited with her beloved stuffed bunny.
Smith used the video as an example of the kind of stories senior living communities can and should share with employees and customers.
“My comment to the group was, if you can do this in the grocery industry, think about how much more powerful this could be in senior living,” Smith said.
Smith suggests providers should tell stories about moments when frontline workers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to touch residents’ lives. Those stories could come from community or company leaders, or they could come from the caregivers themselves.
There are also industry resources meant to help providers tell better stories. One such effort is Senior Living Works, an Argentum-led workforce initiative meant to build awareness about the different careers within the industry.
Storytelling is critical for the senior living industry, according to Brent Weil, vice president of workforce development for Argentum. Senior Living Works routinely recruits industry “ambassadors” to share their experience on social media or in person among their peers.
“It’s harder than ever to break through the clutter and be heard through traditional media, but authentic stories do reach people,” Weil told SHN. “Our best stories come from our own dedicated workers.”
As for the kind of stories senior living providers should tell, Kramer suggests ones that focus on human relationships, not simply meeting for care needs.
“It’s telling stories about, for instance, how the organization has cared for the person who’s the frontline employee,” Kramer suggested. “Or how the frontline employee has cared in a personal way for a resident, or how a resident has cared for another person: a grandchild, an employee.”
Smith has some ideas, too. One of the last photos she has of her grandparents together is when they were crowned Mr. and Mrs. Valentine’s Day in the senior living community they were living in at the time.
“The people who helped create this memory have no idea what a great memory it has created for my family, to remember our grandparents so happy together,” Smith said. “I wish I could write a story of how meaningful it was.”