Employee Retention, Part 2: Engagement and Culture

Peter Drucker is widely quoted as saying that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As we have seen in recent meetings and discussions, employee shortages are rampant in almost every economic sector, and human services is no exception. Most organizations have recruiting and retaining staff as strategic initiatives. ContinuumCloud’s 2023 Behavioral Health Industry Report results highlight the challenges facing behavioral health organizations (BHOs) in recruitment and retention, as well as employee engagement and development. January’s blog looked at the issue generally and suggested an approach that ties mission and staffing via a recovery approach. This month, I’d like to focus on some of the contributors to that challenge and the cultural elements that can improve recruitment and retention rather than hinder it.

In a recruiting environment that has more vacancies (many BHOs report 25-30% vacancies) than applicants, both recruiting and retention require more than an appealing package of salary and benefits. Employees are looking to work in an environment that provides flexibility (work-life balance) and offers a mission that reflects their values, and supports their professional growth and development. The first gives an advantage to organizations that offer various scheduling options, or opportunities for full or part-time work. The second and third flow from a culture that elevates mission and emphasizes learning and growth for the organization and the employee.

Data on Recruiting, Retention & Company Culture

Looking deeper at the 2023 data, only 45% of respondents indicate they have an established and consistent recruitment strategy in place and only 34% have one for retention. 43% have an engagement strategy in place and 53% are providing career development and training opportunities. Only 27% regularly measure their recruiting strategy effectiveness. So while 87% indicate they can fill positions quickly, those responding to the survey report indicate that 91% had turnover rates above 20%. Recruitment and on-boarding cost employers thousands of dollars per position, so the ROI on improving these processes is high.

Retention challenges reported include “disengaged employees” (about 43%), lack of professional growth (35%), disorganized on-boarding process (31%), and lack of engagement strategy (30%). So, while 70% of those responding say they have a positive work culture, the data suggest it is not adequately impacting their recruiting and retention efforts. Culture challenges include communication, stressful work environment, creating a sense of community, recognition and rewards, and consistency across culture initiatives.

Leadership that is transparent, communicative, and acts with integrity builds trust; focus on mission and patient/client advocacy provide meaning and satisfaction; emphasis on growth and development support feeling valued; and a positive team environment can all decrease stress and provides connection to the organization. All contribute to a positive culture, one that creates a bond between the employee, the leadership, and those being served.

Overcoming Funding Challenges

BHO salaries are often constrained and there is typically little funding for outside training and growth opportunities. Often, development opportunities are home grown. Common offerings are licensure supervision, and in-house training and workshops to develop the use of evidence-based practices. A smaller number of organizations are creating leadership development programs that offer staff new skills, promote informal leadership networks and cross departmental communication.

At OPEN MINDS’ February Conference in Clearwater Beach, ContinuumCloud sponsored a panel where one such program was described. Kellee Webb, CHRO at Cenikor (serving Texas and New Mexico) described their program, called LEAD. The program allows staff to apply and focuses not only on leadership skills using webinars and seminars, but also by putting those skills to work on projects that enhance the participants’ knowledge and skills as well as lead to organizational improvement. The application, training, and mentoring processes are structured and monitored. The work involved is compensated for this additional initiative and commitment. As staff move through the three tiers over three years, they become eligible for enhanced tuition reimbursement. The financial investment is not insignificant, but a better use of resources than recruiting and on-boarding.

Hiring staff that is relatively new to the field – as most BHOs have always done – means that recruitment should focus on interest in growth as much as on training and experience. On-boarding these novice staff effectively, providing mentorship, and an opportunity to develop leadership skills over time can provide BHOs with a sustainable workforce now and as new opportunities arise.

About the Author

Maggie Labarta

Maggie Labarta is Founder and Consultant at Impact Non-profit Consulting, having previously retired as CEO of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. Labarta holds a Ph.D. in Clinical and Community Psychology and has extensive experience in both administration and clinical practice. She also has particular expertise in strategic planning, data and analytics as management tools, and organizational development. She provides consultative services for numerous community organizations.

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