There’s an old adage that employees tend to leave their managers, not their jobs. That’s especially relevant for the senior living industry, which has grappled with a staffing crisis in recent years, particularly among its frontline workers.
And there is evidence it’s not just an old adage, either. A 2015 Gallup study of more than 7,000 Americans showed that about half of them left a job to get away from their manager at some point in their career.
In an effort to overcome staffing headwinds, many senior living providers are specifically training their managers in different ways to tamp down on turnover. These methods range from refining managers’ “soft skills” that help forge better ties with employees to tracking data differently to tie turnover to certain managers.
“People don’t quit companies, people quit bosses,” Jo Anne Hartman, managing director for the corporate university program at Acts Retirement-Life Communities, told Senior Housing News. “And we recognize that.”
According to recent data from Activated Insights — the research firm behind the annual Great Place to Work survey for aging services providers — the senior living industry struggles with a higher voluntary termination percentage for its frontline workers than companies in other, comparable service industries.
The departure rate for full-time frontline senior housing employees clocks in at 29%, according to responses from communities polled by Activated Insights. That’s markedly higher than the hotel and retail industry, which reported an 18% attrition rate. It’s also much higher than the turnover rates seen in grocery stores (13%) and hospitals (10%), according to the data that those industries provided as part of Great Place to Work surveys.
Meanwhile, the stakes for reducing turnover are high. The senior living industry employed about 892,000 people in 2016, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shared by trade association Argentum. But the sector will have to recruit and retain about 300,000 more employees by 2026 in order to avoid a widespread staffing shortage.
Building soft skills
Managers can establish better relationships with the employees they lead by learning to better communicate with them. But that can be easier said than done, as managers often oversee employees from vastly different backgrounds and generations.
This is partly why Omaha, Nebraska-based Heritage Communities helps its leaders hone their “soft skills,” such as communication, teamwork and problem solving, according to COO Amy Birkel.
Heritage has 13 communities in operation in Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona, and three under development that are due to open next year. The company has an “upside down triangle” for an organizational chart, with executive directors at the top of that chart on the corporate level, and frontline workers at the top on the community level.
The operator’s six-month turnover rate currently clocks in at 27%, with 40% of its associates having worked there for two or more years.
“One thing we have focused on formally in the last two years has been growing our emotional intelligence,” Birkel told Senior Housing News. “We’ve done that at the executive director level and also at the department head level.”
Heritage routinely brings in speakers and distributes literature to teach those employees about soft skills, Birkel added. The idea is that if these leaders can communicate better, they’ll be able to get along with employees better, and in turn, develop relationships that can help reduce turnover. This is important because managers are often promoted or hired due to their technical skills, and not always their effectiveness at communicating.
Heritage isn’t the only senior living provider to put an emphasis on fostering relationships between managers and frontline workers. Seasons Living, an Oregon-based company with 15 communities in six states, also helps its leaders cultivate their soft skills by working with National Seminars Training.
Seasons offers bite-sized seminars through the corporate training firm’s “Star12” program. The seminars range in length from five-minute tips to hours-long webinars, and cover topics such as leadership skills, communication, time management and work delegation.
“We know that developing soft skills will make them better managers and leaders,” Seasons COO Dan Williams told SHN. “And that’s going to help with retention.”
Seasons also tries to pair managers with their counterparts at sister communities so they can form bonds with one another — a crucial step in keeping leaders feeling like they’re part of a larger mission.
“We need to be ensuring that we can do everything we can to keep our managers,” Williams said. “When you turn over managers, you’re going to turn over their subordinates, as well.”
The provider’s turnover rate usually runs between 22% and 28%, Williams said. Currently, it’s at 26%.
At Acts Retirement-Life Communities, almost 1,000 employees currently take part in Acts Corporate University, the company’s training and development department. Using the in-house learning initiative, employees can hone their business writing, public speaking, customer service, conflict resolution and cultural diversity skill sets.
The organization also offers four-hour new manager training courses for its employees each quarter, and hosts monthly management workshops.
“It’s important for us to maintain a low turnover in order to provide the best service possible to our residents, and that’s what drives this,” Hartman said. “We just want to ensure that … every supervisor makes a difference to their employees.”
Learning from turnover
While senior living providers can do everything in their power to reduce turnover, they can’t eliminate it entirely. But turnover can also represent a learning opportunity for providers that know how to properly analyze it — and doing so can help target support or remediation related to managers that appear to be driving workers away.
For instance, when someone leaves their job Heritage, the company schedules an exit interview to learn more about why that employee decided to leave.
Those interviews are crucial in separating more benign forms of turnover, like an employee going back to school, from negative turnover, such as an employee leaving for a competitor.
“For example, in an 80-associate community, you might have one registered nurse, but 25 CNAs and med aids,” Birkel said. “Many of those CNAs are going to nursing school and not all of them are going to be able to move up.”
But in recognition of the role that supervisors may play in driving — or preventing — turnover, Heritage is making a change in its data collection practices next year. Starting in the first quarter of 2020, Heritage will start tracking turnover by individual leaders.
The provider will also more closely track employment status to better determine why employees left the company.
Similarly, Acts tracks turnover by community and by department with the goal of solving problems as they arise. And at Seasons, turnover is tracked by each community to judge performance and determine where more support is needed.
“Some things can come back that are hard to hear,” Birkel said. “But we have to be open-minded.”