Problem Solvers: Keeping Senior Living Staff Engaged Despite Covid Fatigue

The Covid-19 pandemic has created myriad problems for senior living providers. But these problems are not insurmountable, and companies across the industry are devising creative solutions.

In this series, we’re surveying industry leaders to highlight these actionable solutions. With Covid-19 surging in markets around the country, we kick off the series by asking:

How do you keep staff engaged despite Covid fatigue?

Kai Hsiao, CEO of Eclipse Senior Living:

Is there fatigue out there? Sure, it’s been a crazy year. Not just because of Covid, but hurricanes and fires and natural disasters — even a brain-eating amoeba in Lake Jackson, Texas. Residents had to go bottled water for a while. So, it’s been one thing after another that’s caused the fatigue.

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You need to show people that you understand them, you get them.

We’ve increased our level of communication. We do weekly all-calls with all the communities. We have a special place on our intra-company portal with updates on protocols and regulatory changes. We’ve increased associate-only communications. I used to visit one or two communities every single week to kick the tires and make sure things are running the way they should be. Now, I’m calling up random communities two to three times a week to see how they’re doing.

One thing that’s come through all those discussions is, the [exhaustion] isn’t just due to Covid but the cultural unrest that’s out there.

With that, we launched our IDEA campaign, which is about diversity, equality. That’s something we’ve really honed in on, and going forward, you’ll see a lot of stats from our recruiting and training materials, and us getting out there with that message. You know the team we have at Eclipse, and the fact that we have a diverse cultural background is unique in the industry. We’ll definitely be talking about that more in our recruiting and training efforts.

Material from Eclipse’s IDEA campaign

The IDEA campaign starts on the recruiting side, and it’s personal development. We’ll be having a mentorship program … You need to show people that you understand them, you get them, and are pushing toward better representation.

You manage through the curveballs, but to keep people engaged, you’ve have to have something that people aspire to and gives them hope.

Lynne Katzmann, CEO of Juniper Communities:

We’ve committed ourselves to two things.

One is regular recognition of the small things. I started holding town halls, and the primary purpose is to say, okay, what’s going on at Juniper, what do you need to know about? But, the majority of the time is spent recognizing people who did something special during Covid, that no one would have otherwise heard about. It could be an associate who took someone’s chicken soup recipe and made it for that individual when she was sick. There were probably 35 or 40 stories in our last session.

More than 1,000 people get invited to these meetings — the whole company. So if someone is nominated and then we recognize them, the recognition is public, and it gets followed with a certificate and a note from me. Right now, I’m writing 35 personal notes. I know it’s a little thing, but it makes a difference to people. And it’s not recognition for some big, monumental thing — it’s recognition for people seeing people and doing something special for an individual.

The second thing we’re focusing on is fun. So, Halloween is my favorite holiday, which means it’s Juniper’s favorite holiday. We’ve already launched our costume contest. We do two parties. One is on the day itself, when everybody wears a costume, and we’ve got virtual parades and it’s over the top. The big deal is that I have to post my picture first; generally at 6 a.m., I am in costume. And then, everybody who gets an award, we basically throw a party for everybody in their building, and we send in food and fun. So, we create two big, celebratory events.

So, those are two things. Really simple, but everybody seems to dig them.

Dan Williams, President and COO of Seasons Living:

As we progress through the pandemic, maintaining morale among the workforce becomes as crucial as our infection control protocols. Our teams are tired. We put an enormous amount of pressure on them to keep our residents safe, and then we ask them to risk their health while doing so. They are, without a doubt, the heroes of the pandemic.

We do several things at Seasons Living to keep morale up. First and foremost is our commitment to keeping our company culture one that employees enjoy. We are not a top-down organization, and our employees genuinely have a voice. We empower our middle managers with tools, support, and flexibility to manage employees empathically and with understanding.

Second, we employ various methods to show them love, including:

— “Hero pay” for various COVID-positive situations allow them to get monetary bonuses.

— Our executive directors have a monthly budget for employee appreciation. We recently doubled that budget.

— We have awarded extra PTO benefits.

— Thank you notes in the form of WOW cards that recognize and reward employees.

— Flexible schedules.

Lastly, one of the best things we did to combat COVID fatigue was to simplify things. Priorities are shifting quickly and often unpredictably. We needed to home in on what’s essential and let non-urgent tasks and assignments go. For example, rebranding our memory care program and rolling out a new procurement program were put on hold. This allowed all managers to take a knee and catch their breath and focus on what’s really important — protecting residents, themselves, and their colleagues.

Nicole Bartecki, VP of Sales and Marketing, Pathway to Living:

We have looked upon our team members as heroes, and we’ve approached our support of their morale strategically through ongoing communications, specific programs, events, and promoting an everyday culture of genuine gratitude and kindness.

Ongoing Communication

Voice of Viva: Direct e-mail communications to all team members through an electronic publication called “Voice of Viva.” We focused on honoring individuals through sharing heroic stories and interviews. We also shared educational materials to keep our team safe and inspirational materials to uplift.

Operational call: First daily and now twice a week solely focused on supporting community leadership and providing them with solutions. Each call includes designated report outs from leaders focused on how they are supporting the community teams. A focus of providing information and listening to questions and concerns.

Programs

Care to clean, cover, & distance: Created posters to identify the key elements in keeping safe during the pandemic and created a pledge that everyone signed, related to their own part in keeping themselves and their team safe both at work and at home. This was followed up by a video contest. Each community was given the opportunity to create a video that shows how they implemented this within the community. First, second and third-place prizes were given.

Celebration weeks: We celebrated every position with their very own week to honor and thank them for the importance of their role as well as their individual commitment. This included creative rewards tied to a large-scale lotto game, personalized letters from leaders, artwork created through residents’ surveys focused on appreciation, unique gifts appropriate for each team, web-based gift certificates for safe shopping, and video recordings of thanks from top leadership.

Events

Care to Show: Our corporate team at the support center organized events to welcome team members to work and say thank you as they left their shift. These included fun parking lot events following safe practices, with buttons, food, Skyping in leaders from Chicago.

Virtual breaks from reality: Online rooms for leaders that have included virtual bingo, pub nights, and trivia contests.

Jack Callison, CEO of Enlivant:

I think 2020 has been an exceedingly difficult year on so many levels. And yet, frontline employees loyally come to work every day, day after day, and deliver on the mission of enriching lives.

I’ll try to give you some strategies to maintain employee engagement as the pandemic wears on, that we’re using.

Historically, we did quarterly town hall meetings that we broadcast across the entire organization. We share important company news, successes, information, reinforce culture, discuss the future company vision. We have stepped up our communication by hosting bi-monthly town hall meetings. And we hosted weekly office hours, where our teams are able to engage in a Q&A session with the entire leadership — any topic is fair game. Dan Guill, our president and COO, throughout the entire pandemic has sent out nightly update emails to share important, updated information with the entire organization.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have developed and delivered well over 50 hours of formal education and training on a plethora of Covid-19 related topics. We spent millions on PPE. To express our gratitude to employees not working at the community level, we’ve drop-shipped several rounds of masks for these employees who are working from home now, including enough for their immediate family.

We’re taking the time to provide our employees with a number of resources to focus on both their physical and emotional wellbeing. We initiated an intense focus on diversity, inclusion and belonging, that really transpired after the tragic death of George Floyd. In May 2020, while there was widespread outrage and protests for racial justice, our Enlivant leadership team began hosting active listening sessions to learn from our employees across the entire country. We’ve made a commitment to ensure that all employees have a consistent workplace experience and that we’re inclusive of all dimensions of diversity. We’ve created an employee-led diversity, inclusion and belonging council to help drive change on our ongoing journey.

We put together a new buddy staffing program. The idea is quite simple: If you feel from a mental or physical health perspective that you need a break, you’ve got my back, and I’ve got yours. That’s been well received and heavily utilized. We rolled out a series of workshops that we titled “Listening with Empathy.” This partners employees with their colleagues to learn and practice listening with empathy, for themselves and their teams. We’ve provided webinar-based training around topics like stress management and parenting during uncertain times, and created a support group for parents to build camaraderie and share best practices as they navigate educational and childcare challenges with their families.

We really had to adapt and be flexible and nimble, and most importantly, listen with empathy to our employees and try and meet their needs as employers, as fellow human beings.

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