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Employee engagement in healthcare: your mini guide

How to spot it, understand it – and 6 ways to improve it

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The more people talk about something, the more I get suspicious that it may be – well, fluffy: all noise, not much substance. 

Employee engagement‘ is one such word. I spend my working day talking to healthcare professionals, and I’m often struck by the misconceptions about what ‘engagement’ actually means.

I understand why. It’s one of those slippery phrases that’s hard to pin down. I’ve seen it used interchangeably with, well, almost every positive behavior an employee could display. 

For instance, the NHS Engagement Toolkit defines engaged employees as better organized, happier, more satisfied, more loyal, healthier, more motivated, more productive, better at communicating, more prepared to go the extra mile and bend over backward… 

And it’s true that some of these behaviors are a symptom of engagement. But are they the same thing? No

So let’s debunk the myths of employee engagement in healthcare – and explain the truth. 


Frontline Employee Engagement in 2023

After working with hundreds of frontline organizations, Blink has created this guide to help leaders prepare for a year that promises both challenge and opportunity.

Download to learn: The top 8 frontline engagement trends to watch out for and the 6 key strategies for success


Why using employee engagement as a ‘catch-all’ for positive behavior does it a disservice.

First, it makes ‘engagement’ effectively unattainable because who exhibits all these behaviours most of the time? 

Second, if we couch ‘engagement’ in vague aspirational terms, it’s easy to view it as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than the must-have it is. When that happens, healthcare leaders are more likely to dismiss it as a performance indicator rather than a practical initiative. 

Finally, it’s impossible to quantify the sum of all these behaviors at once. And if you can’t measure something, it’s tricky to improve it

Little girl getting a vaccine in a healthcare clinic

The good news? The reality is far less complicated. Employee engagement in healthcare is achievable, specific, and measurable. 

To understand what it is, let’s first look at what it is not

Employee engagement in healthcare isn’t:

Satisfaction 

A satisfied nurse will work their shift without complaint. They will do the work required. And they will accept another hospital job that offers a slightly better schedule.

Happiness

A care worker may feel happy at work because they have a lot of free time to go on their phone – but that doesn’t make them engaged. 

Motivation 

A medic may feel motivated to work hard because they want to get promoted, but that won’t necessarily correlate with higher engagement levels. Motivation is forward-looking, while engagement happens in the present.

Empowerment 

An organization might empower its physios to make more autonomous decisions when working with clients. But the physio will only take that opportunity when they also feel engaged. Frontline empowerment doesn’t always translate into action; engagement does.

An absence of stress

A brain surgeon may feel stressed when operating but still be highly engaged. Some degree of stress can increase engagement. Gallup found in early May 2020 – i.e., mid-pandemic – the percentage of “engaged” workers reached 38% – the highest since tracking began 20 years ago. 

Productivity 

A hospital porter may be highly productive – i.e., put in lots of working hours – without ever being engaged. The same porter may work two hours a week and stay with the same hospital for 20 years because he is engaged. 

A fixed state 

Engagement isn’t an intrinsic trait or something that is ‘achieved’ and then forgotten. It ebbs and flows. 

The same for everyone 

Engagement manifests differently in different people. Industry, role, type of organization – all these all affect how an engaged individual will behave. That’s another reason why blanket definitions don’t work; an effective engagement strategy is personalized.

HR’s job 

An employee engagement strategy needs to stretch across the whole organization, starting at the top. That means it’s the responsibility of C-suite execs to initiate procedures and up to line managers to make them happen..

So – what is it?

Engagement boils down to a sense of purpose

When this is in place, they can maintain an engaged state of mind – at least for a finite period.  

This explains why, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, staff engagement levels in healthcare went up. The urgency of saving lives in never-before-seen conditions gave created a heightened sense of purpose.

But a sense of purpose in itself won’t sustain engagement. We see that, nine months later, when exhaustion, worry, trauma, and burnout have reduced staff engagement in the NHS to Great Recession-era lows

Instead, it’s helpful to think of engagement as a double-sided coin. On the one side, behavior: the emotional commitment an employee feels towards their organization. 

On the other, attitude: how much effort they are willing to dedicate to their patients. For engagement to be successful, both sides of the coin need to be in play. 

That happens when other, more practical factors supplement a sense of purpose:

  • clarity about your role; 
  • receiving adequate support;
  • having the right equipment; 
  • working in a position that plays to your strengths; and
  • working alongside committed colleagues. 

These are the critical aspects of the culture managers must foster if they want to increase staff engagement


Frontline Employee Engagement in 2023

After working with hundreds of frontline organizations, Blink has created this guide to help leaders prepare for a year that promises both challenge and opportunity.

Download to learn: The top 8 frontline engagement trends to watch out for and the 6 key strategies for success


Engagement is a mindset, but it also manifests as (visible) action.

As I already said, engaged employees won’t necessarily be smiling, stress-free, or working longer hours. So how can you tell if staff are engaged?

Here are some signs of high engagement at play: 

  • making eye contact with and escorting lost family members to where they need to go
  • never forgetting to wash hands or check IV lines
  •  noticing the yellow “fall risk” bracelet on a patient in the lobby and helping them back to their room
  • unrushed listening when a patient asks about their medications or other concerns
  • being mindful of the need to be quiet at night
  • ensuring all meals are delivered while still hot
  • wheeling a bed-bound patient out of the care home to feel snow for the first time in years
  •  giving a resident with dementia a hand or foot massage in a quiet moment.

Why healthcare employee engagement matters?

Doctors, nurses, medical techs, and other frontline employees in the healthcare industry are under constant pressure. They are expected to deliver quality care and save lives. No matter how acutely funding is cut. No matter how scarce resources become. And no matter how brutally a pandemic ravages a hospital.

New rules, policies, and regulations can’t be allowed to disrupt the flow of care. The employee experience takes a back seat to the patient experience for obvious reasons.

Does that mean that employee engagement in the healthcare industry should be a low priority? Not at all.

Healthcare employee engagement matters whether you’re in the ER or the exam room. Working in the medical field is inherently stressful, and burnouts are inevitable.

Doctors performing a stressful operation.

The current pandemic has a severe impact on the mental well-being of healthcare professionals all over the world. Burnout and anxiety rates are skyrocketing. New YouGov polling for the IPPR think-tank found that:

  • 50% of healthcare workers across the UK said their mental health had deteriorated since the virus began taking its toll.
  • 72% said their general health was being put at risk.
  • One in five claimed they would be likely to leave their job after the pandemic.

And as of January 2020 – before the pandemic was in full effect – 42% of physicians reported burnout.

Those stats aren’t surprising at the best of times; after all, healthcare is an industry where one small mistake can be deadly.

Covid-19 has increased this pressure tenfold, also because workers often lack the PPE equipment required to keep themselves and their patients safe. But that doesn’t mean facilities shouldn’t take steps to combat mental health, burnout, and disengagement.

Today, healthcare workers worldwide are making substantial personal sacrifices to save the lives of those infected. Some have come out of retirement and returned to work. Others have found themselves in new departments, having to catch up with unfamiliar routines and protocols as they go. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that the healthcare frontline is protected, equipped, and invested in.

What employee engagement looks like in healthcare

Engaged employees are aware of what they should be doing at any given time, have the resources they need to complete that work, and feel like they have an essential part to play in fulfilling your facility’s goals.

They feel empowered to share their concerns and ideas with management and the sense that their contribution is valuable and valued. Employees who are engaged are less likely to look for outside opportunities or accept unsolicited options because they feel emotionally invested in their work.

Young family smiling at new born.

It looks like better patient outcomes.

And as you might expect, what’s good for employees is good for patients. A Gallup study of more than 200 hospitals found that nurses’ engagement level was the most significant predictor of patient mortality rates. Research by Harvard Business Review shows a direct correlation between patient experience measures and measures of employee engagement. 

Engaged employees are more likely to hold themselves to the highest patient care standards, whether that means double-checking a patient’s medication list or sanitizing their hands more frequently.

It looks like money saved.

What may be more surprising is that what’s good for employees is also good for a facility’s bottom line. In healthcare, turnover is a huge problem — with an overall rate of over 20% — and that turnover takes a significant financial toll on organizations. 

Retaining good employees saves money, and increasing employee engagement is one of the simplest ways to reduce staff turnover. In one Gallup case study, a hospital that raised its engagement score simultaneously saw a 7% reduction in turnover — saving $1.7 million.

They also found companies with high engagement are at an increased advantage and more resilient throughout the pandemic.

How to boost employee engagement in the healthcare industry?

Improving healthcare employee engagement is a matter of taking small steps that add up to a significant impact.

1. Streamline internal communication

One of the biggest barriers to employee engagement in healthcare is ineffective internal communications. In many healthcare facilities, employees can’t get the information they need without disengaging from their primary caregiving tasks.

They have to go to the nurses’ station, stop by a bulletin board, go to a meeting, or go to a computer and log into the facility intranet. Finding out about changes to critical processes and procedures, updates to key initiatives, or changes to timetables or staff schedules means stopping everything.

These activities interrupt the day’s flow, and make it difficult for healthcare workers to re-engage with their primary responsibilities after each pause.

A mobile employee app, such a Blink, is a great way to solve this problem. Healthcare workers are rarely found sitting at a desk. And improving the employee experience should be about reaching employees where they are instead of asking them to meet you halfway.

Healthcare employees engaging with a mobile app.

Blink recently ran a pilot program in one of the UK’s largest private hospitals. The program involved nurses, porters, receptionists, cleaners, security guards, and other employees across departments. And it provided them access to crucial information delivered by internal comms in our customizable mobile app.

It cost £2 million less than building a native application but still gave all the facility’s frontline workers an easy way to get the resources they needed while on the move.

The results were staggering. The hospital saw a 30% increase in engagement with internal communications, and patients received better, faster care from a more satisfied and engaged staff.

The bottom line is that when a facility is using a mobile platform, employees can access whatever information they need. Comms can share vital messaging without any of that communication interrupting the flow of care.

2. Be the change you want to see

No matter what tactics you use to engage healthcare employees, you can’t just impose rules and regulations on them. You’ll have to lead by example.

For instance, if you’re putting a new internal communication app in place, you’ll be wise to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Asking employees to use your internal communication system is not enough. You need to take the lead:

  • Populate the app with lots of useful information.
  • Direct people to check the app when questions arise.
  • Spend time on the app yourself, answering questions, sharing, and giving feedback.

When employees know they can get the information they need in your app, they’ll be excited to use it.

3. Don’t get in the way of employee flow

Face-to-face meetings are sometimes necessary, but consider how much disruption meetings can cause in a frontline worker’s day. When you’re tempted to call a meeting, consider whether staff could address the issue at hand in other ways.

For example, you can curate information ruthlessly so only important updates reach your team — and to only the staff members who need to see those updates. Make sure everything you share is clear, so there’s not a lot of follow-ups necessary. Disseminating information effectively should mean respecting your employees’ roles and their time.

4. Commit to keeping everything in one place

The staff bulletin boards have survived into the digital era because people know they can go to it for the information they need when they need it. But certainly not because of their convenience. If you are running a large healthcare facility with many bulletin boards, or instance, it can be frustrating to both those who post and consume the information.

Alternatively, if your internal comms team keeps all the information in a central location that’s accessible to everyone in the organization, your staff members will get what they need to know fast and save time.

For example, Blink offers a content management “Hub” to keep all your files in one place. These files can then be accessed from anywhere with a mobile app.

5. Track and recognize expected behavior

One in five workers says their employer or seniors are “horrible” at giving recognition. Your employees will be more engaged when they understand what’s expected of them — not only when it comes to their primary caregiving responsibilities but also internal tasks.

When you let your employees know that what they’re doing is both seen and appreciated, they’ll feel valued and more connected to your organizational goals.

Healthcare workers sharing feedback to increase engagement.

Regular feedback should be a big part of your healthcare employee engagement strategy. You can also organize events such as “employee appreciation week” to give workers a chance to recognize each other’s accomplishments.

6. Get feedback from healthcare workers

How can you tell if your employees have what they need for fostering their engagement? The simplest thing you can do is ask. An internal assessment may open your eyes to gaps you never realized existed. For example, an audit or a survey can help you answer questions like:

  • Do your employees feel like they’re making a valuable contribution?
  • Do they feel like they have a voice?
  • What types of communication methods do they prefer?
  • What roadblocks are keeping them from doing the best possible job?

To conduct an employee survey, the first step is to brainstorm the goals you want to meet and the insights you expect to get from the survey. To learn more, view this guide on conducting a workplace survey.

Wrapping up

Is the highest possible level of employee engagement a lot to shoot for – especially during uncertain times such as these? Absolutely? But one of the most persistent myths in the healthcare industry is that there are specific barriers that make improving the employee experience genuinely impossible. 

According to Advisory Board research, healthcare industry workers are already twice as engaged as employees in other industries. That means healthcare facilities can set higher employee engagement goals across departments and, given the right tools, expect to meet those goals.

They know when a caregiver is genuinely engaged, and that knowledge can affect not only the patient-caregiver dynamic but also outcomes. Patients who trust that their providers aren’t in it just for the paycheck are more likely to be full participants in their care.

Fostering an environment of high employee engagement in healthcare is a challenge, but it’s not an impossible one.

Healthcare professionals have already responded to COVID-19 with dignity, bravery, and compassion. They are working long hours, constantly revising how they provide care, and putting their lives at risk to protect us.

Their employee experience must be protected at all costs because, without them, we are powerless. And research shows that improving employee engagement becomes even more essential and effective in times of crisis (like the 2008 recession) because those are the times when resilience matters more than ever. 

When health and care staff are engaged, it impacts all of us, directly or indirectly. So should health and care organizations invest in employee engagement during a pandemic?

No-brainer.

Healthcare Employee Engagement FAQs

What does engagement mean in healthcare?

Engaged employees are aware of what they should be doing at any given time, have the resources they need to complete that work, and feel like they have an essential part to play in fulfilling your facility’s goals.

They feel empowered to share their concerns and ideas with management and the sense that their contribution is valuable and valued. Employees who are engaged are less likely to look for outside opportunities or accept unsolicited options because they feel emotionally invested in their work.

Why is engagement important in healthcare?

Employee engagement is very important in healthcare, various studies have found that engaged healthcare staff can lead to better patient care, lower operating costs, a safer workplace and increased profitability.

How can healthcare improve employee engagement?

You can improve healthcare employee engagement by having a strong internal communications strategy, collecting & actioning employee feedback, focusing on employee recognition and focusing on empowering staff.