Happy employees a high priority at Providence

System promotes career advancement

Recruiting and retaining qualified employees is an ongoing concern for access managers, who are in the position of offering comparatively low wages for a job that just keeps getting more complicated.

Providence Health System in Portland, OR, has taken a proactive approach to this industrywide challenge, making employee satisfaction a strategic objective and designing programs aimed at keeping morale high, says Barbara Wegner, CHAM, regional director for access services.

It is a Providence policy, for example, that before any job openings are advertised outside the system, they are first made available to employees through postings on the organization’s intranet. "You could be looking at hundreds of positions each week, and if they have the skills or qualifications, priority is given to employees."

That and other initiatives have paid off, Wegner says, with Providence routinely ranked as one of the state’s top employers and employee satisfaction surveys showing better results each year. The health system has been listed as one of the 100 best companies to work for by Oregon Business Magazine, and two of its hospitals, Providence St. Vincent and Providence Portland, were included in the "100 Top Hospitals" ranking by Solucient, an Evanston, IL, company that provides health care intelligence and benchmark information.

Training and education

A strong training and ongoing education program, combined with the opportunity for career advancement, has resulted in a highly qualified, experienced access staff, she notes. "There are certain spots within access services that have almost no turnover."

One of those spots is central access services, where 50-60 employees handle scheduling, preadmission, insurance verification, and customer service calls, Wegner says. "Everybody is happy, there is very high productivity, and the quality and quantity of work is exceptional."

"They love the manager and the supervisor," she says, having just walked through the area during a "Boss’s Day" observance arranged and paid for by the staff. The access quality and training analysts comprise another group of employees with very little turnover, Wegner adds.

Confidence in their abilities, a good work environment and a sense that their work is valued by the organization are "absolutely more important" than salary when it comes to keeping employees happy, Wegner adds.

"Most companies have benefit and wage packages that they use to attract employees, but most surveys reflect that although that is important, it’s not the most important factor," adds Barbara Amato, SPHR, system director for sourcing and recruitment for Providence Health System. "They’re looking at work environment, how employees get along, how they’re supported by management, and the opportunities for growth."

With that in mind, Amato says, Providence has implemented a full employee assistance program that includes:

  • career counseling from master’s-prepared counselors for not only the employee, but also the employee’s immediate family;
  • elder care and day care referral sources and, at many of the larger facilities, on-site day care;
  • workout facilities with trainers on staff;
  • meditation rooms where employees can take a break from the pressures of their workday;
  • a program, beginning in 2003, that allows incumbent staff to work part-time and attend school, supported with full tuition and a stipend, while retaining full job benefits.

A registrar, for example, who wanted to move into the higher-paid position of radiology technician, could take advantage of that program, she adds, with the stipulation that he or she would make a two-year commitment to work at Providence.

There are a variety of positions within access services carrying different pay levels, Wegner points out, offering employees the opportunity for advancement within the department. Areas under her supervision, she says, include guest housing, transportation, communication (telephone operators), all of the registration areas, scheduling, and insurance verification and authorization.

The most highly compensated access employees are the quality and training analysts, whose pay tops out at about $22 an hour, while registrars make a minimum of around $11 an hour and, on the higher end, $16 or $17, Wegner says. Bed control coordinators are paid more than registrars.

While the lowest-paid access employees are those in transportation, most make around $11 an hour, rather than the minimum pay of $9.50, she notes.

"We have a definite career path within access services, and the whole goal is employee retention," Wegner says. "It’s very expensive to lose people. Our training program is complicated, so our goal is not to have people leave. We bend over backwards to recognize people, make the work fun, and accommodate employees’ needs."

Once a year, she adds, access employees from all over Oregon attend an all-day educational program to receive updates on changes in insurance and compliance requirements. "We work closely with the regional business office to find out what problem areas need special attention."

Interestingly, the program "is kind of perceived as a perk," Wegner notes. "They’re learning all day long, but we try to make it fun. Each year, the theme is different."

There’s a well-known phrase among human resources professionals, Amato notes, that says "employees don’t leave the company, they leave their supervisors." When the reasons for leaving a job are controllable, that’s the typical reason, she says, and it’s a fact that is supported by the exit surveys Providence conducts.

As part of an increased focus on recruitment and retention over the past couple of years, Amato says, Providence plans to roll out training for managers that describes, among other skills, how to interact with potential employees during an interview and how to follow up after the interview, she adds.

"We also will be looking at the kind of environment we invite an employee into," Amato explains, "making sure our department works with the department the registrar, for example, will be working in to make sure the two environments are in sync."

Courses already available at Providence Academy, which is operated under the human resources umbrella, cover such topics as "Leadership Development" and "Conflict to Collaboration," she points out. "Training our managers is very important to us, and we are looking into doing more."

Sharon Jordan-Evans, a national speaker who wrote the book Love Em or Lose Em, already had spoken at a meeting for Providence leaders from across the four-state system and was scheduled to lead sessions for managers from individual states, Amato notes.

A second segment of those sessions was to include discussions of the hospital exit interviews specific to that state, she adds. "Data from employees who have left us will be shared with managers, who will work [with the material] in small groups."

On the annual employee survey, which asks, "Would you refer a friend to Providence?", the positive rating was 4.3 on a 5-point scale for the system’s seven Oregon hospitals, Amato says. "It also addresses such issues as the glass ceiling, diversity, and the ability to freely express conflict and opinion."

The latest response rate for the 25-question survey, which is voluntary, was 38%, she adds. "Our goal is a 45% response rate, which would be excellent."

Employee turnover for the system is 10% for nurses and a little less than that for all positions, Amato says, "so we are doing very well."

(Editor’s note: Barbara Wegner can be reached at bwegner@providence.org. Barbara Amato can be reached at bamato@providence.org.)