Health system offers a lifetime of work

Top hospital thinks long term

In a time when health care professionals, particularly nurses, are in short supply, it’s in every employer’s interest to find ways to keep their staff interested and committed. When they can accomplish this while at the same time offering significant and unique benefits to those employees, they’re achieving something that will make others sit up and take notice.

That’s exactly what the Bon Secours Richmond (VA) Health System has done. The system recently was named to Working Mother magazine’s "Top 100 Companies for Working Mothers," and AARP’s "Best Employers for People Over 50" list. Bon Secours also was named one of America’s Healthiest Companies by the Well-ness Councils of America.

What makes Bon Secours so unique? "What we have is a focus on being a place where people can work throughout their lifetime — not just one part of it," says Jim Godwin, SPHR, administrative director of human resources at Bon Secours. Bon Secours Richmond Health System includes three hospitals, numerous outpatient and diagnostic facilities, physician groups, and a school of nursing. A fourth hospital, the 130-bed St. Francis Medical Center, is under construction in Chester-field County and scheduled to open in June 2005.

Having these facilities creates a number of opportunities for the system to access and serve health care professionals, Godwin explains. "Take RNs, for example. We have a school of nursing; so when someone gets out of high school, they can go to our nursing school. Then, they can come to work for us as an RN, and may work in direct patient care, usually for many years, going through various stages as they become more skilled."

But that’s not the end of it, he explains. "Most RNs retire from direct patient care at 55; they do that because of the physical demands of the job," he observes. "It’s not so much that people that age are not strong, but they start to have back problems, foot problems, and other issues that come with the job over time. But we have a need for nurses who do not do bedside care — things like management, quality assurance efforts, patient financial services, and so on."

Many opportunities, benefits

The positions Bon Secours offers older RNs are not simply favors being done out of recognition for years of service; there are specific skills required that these individuals have. Take billing, for example. "Hospital billing is very complex, and the bills have to be accurate for the insurance companies," notes Godwin. "And with Medicare, you really have to know what’s going on. So we have nurses who are no longer able to handle bedside care — either because they are older or due to a workers’ comp claim. They become our auditors; before bills are processed, they ensure that the charges make sense. They notice things that would not be apparent to you or me, and that’s a very useful thing to have on staff."

On the quality assurance front, nurses who no longer handle bedside care are also hired to conduct patient chart audits. "We keep all types of quality statistical analyses that only a medical person can understand — patient outcomes, utilization of resources, and so on," he explains. "You can’t just take a clerk and train her. It’s very important to provide quality improvement feedback to physicians, and it’s better received when it’s coming from a nurse."

The school of nursing also offers employment opportunities. "Often by the time a nurse reaches 55, they will have achieved the proper degrees that allow them to teach," says Godwin. "We use them as instructors in the nursing school and in ongoing continuing education for our staff. They have the experience, the credibility, and the credentials." In addition, he observes, at this point in their lives they are looking for a Monday-Friday, nine-to-five job, "So it’s good timing for them, too."

Flexibility, but no loss of benefits

Another unique aspect of the Bon Secours approach is that while all sorts of schedules are available, part-timers do not necessarily suffer when it comes to benefits. "We offer all sorts of people part-time work — whatever schedule you can imagine," says Godwin. "Any person at this stage of life who wants to cut back, can."

If they choose to do so, however, their pensions will not be adversely impacted. "Most pension plans are based on your salary for the last five to 10 years of employment," he explains. "We have a setup based on the highest-earning years — whenever they occur. So, instead of someone deciding they have to quit working altogether in order to retain their pension, they can continue to work part time. They benefit, and we benefit as well."

The Bon Secours benefit package is broad and diverse. Here are a few examples:

  • Bon Secours discounts home medical equipment for employees — for themselves or for family members. "Any service we offer, our employees are able to access at a discount," Godwin explains. "We cover employees who work as little as two days a week."
  • The company recognizes retirees and long-term employees annually.
  • Bon Secours maintains a list of retirees available for temporary work assignments, consulting or contract work, telecommuting, and part-time work.
  • The health system offers a benefit package to help employees caring for older relatives. Home health care is subsidized for any employee with a spouse, parent, or in-law older than 55 who requires regular care. "A lot of employees 60 or so have parents living with them who are 80 or so," notes Godwin. "We provide nursing assistants and LPNs. The employee calls the in-home elder care line, and we subsidize the cost." (Employees pay $4 an hour.)
  • Employees receive a discount on installation and service of a personal emergency response system.
  • Employees and volunteers receive a free VIVA (Bon Secours’ health information and wellness program for people older than 50) membership.
  • Bon Secours also collaborates with AARP to offer mall walking, distribute health assessments and conduct a faith-based initiative aimed at improving the quality of life for African-Ameri-can women.

A number of the programs, such as mall walking, are offered by Bon Secours to the community at large. In those cases, where community members would pay a small fee, employees would go for free.

Never-ending opportunities

There is virtually no age limit for Bon Secours employees who wish to continue working, says Godwin. "Many of our employees and retirees really identify with being in health care, so the last thing we offer down the road is a volunteer position," he says. "They make very valuable volunteers; they know how to use the phone system, they know the doctors, they experience social gratification, and they still contribute to the mission of the organization."

These decisions, he says, are handled almost on a case-by-case basis. "We have a nurse in her 60s who financially does not need to work but who wants to be in the hospital," he notes. "She makes the best admitting clerk you could ever want. Her pension is not harmed, she feels valuable, she is valuable, and it’s a very positive thing from a morale point of view."

To help ensure high morale, Bon Secours offers a class for managers twice a year on managing employees from different generations. "Say we have a manager in admitting who’s a very sharp young man, 28 or 29," Godwin poses. "The vast majority of his employees are in their 50s or 60s. For both parties, this can be awkward. There’s someone available to help coach him, to help him learn how to manage these employees." This is especially important given that more than a quarter of Bon Secours’ work force is age 50 or older. In fact, in 2002, more than 10% of new hires were older than age 50.

The folks at AARP were clearly impressed with this win-win approach at Bon Secours. "Bon Secours Richmond Health System is ahead of the curve in recognizing the value of the mature worker," says Deborah Russell, manager of Economic Security and Work at AARP.

And as Bonnie Shelor, Bon Secours vice president of human resources notes, the system also is clearly a beneficiary of these policies. "Labor shortages of tomorrow pose critical questions today to employers — namely how to recruit, retain, train, and address the needs of older workers," she says. "These are issues we’ve been concerned with for a long time — this award lets us know we’re moving in the right direction."

[For more information, contact Jim Godwin, SPHR, Administrative Director, Human Resources, Bon Secours Health System, Richmond, VA. Telephone: (804) 764-6571.]