Flexible work and well-being in rural health care

Podcast: VP of employee experience shares how Sanford Health attracts, retains workers in the Midwest

Flexible work and well-being in rural health care

Episode Transcript

Matt Holsen (host):

Hello and welcome to the “Reimagining Rural Health” podcast series brought to you by Sanford Health. In this series, we explore the challenges facing health care systems across the country from improving access to equitable care, building a sustainable workforce, and discovering innovative ways to deliver high quality, low-cost services in rural and underserved populations. Each episode examines how Sanford Health and other health systems are advancing care for the unique communities they serve.

Today’s topic is a conversation around workforce challenges and solutions. Our guest is Ashley Wenger-Slaba, vice president of employee experience at Sanford Health. Our moderator is Ann Nachtigal, director of Sanford Health News.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Hello everyone and welcome to the “Reimagining Rural Health” podcast. We are talking today about workforce challenges and solutions. And joining me today, our guest is Ashley Wenger-Slaba. She is vice president of employee experience here at Sanford Health. Ashley, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Thank you, Ann. It’s great to be here.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

So vice president of employee experience, that sounds like a big job. Can you explain a little bit about what that role entails?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

It’s a really great job ‘cause we get to focus on one of our most important things here at Sanford, which is our people, one of our greatest resources. And I get to lead our employee experience team as well as our DE&I team, and employee and labor relations as part of that.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Wow, that’s great. And as you say, really the people are at the crux of every organization and I think when we talk employee experience that really has changed. Work has changed for so many people across the country. Right. And really what led that was the COVID-19 pandemic and specifically we saw in health care how those challenges really were heightened, which led to some staffing shortages, increased health care worker burnout and other hurdles that really still persist. So, but really similarly that gave us some opportunities to really innovate and think differently about the way we do our work. Can you talk about that?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Yes. One of the main ways it provided an opportunity for us was when Covid came, we sent people home, right. In droves as quickly as we could ‘cause safety was the number one priority. And I think it thrust us into this idea of working flexibly that we maybe had not adopted as much as an organization. It’s also just not as common in the health care industry.

Seeing the success of that and our ability to work differently led us to adopt a working flexibly policy and toolkit that we formalized this past year. And as a result of that, have been able to really expand our flexible work arrangements, not just for our nonclinical staff, but for our clinical staff as well, which has been a real opportunity for us to recruit and retain a different, different populations of employees.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Sure, absolutely. And that is really unique that it’s in the clinical space, right. I would think that’s a huge draw for attraction and retention. Do you see this as really the wave of the future of HR?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

I do think we’re gonna have to think differently about talent and meeting employees where they’re at. You know, I think the job market has changed significantly. People have options and with remote work, especially being in the Midwest, we are competing against a whole nationwide of employers. And so being able to provide opportunities for employees to work in a way that works with the rest of their life is really important.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

What do you think are the greatest opportunities in attracting and retaining that top talent?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Two of the main areas where we’ve seen populations that this has really appealed to. One has been our employees that are not just caregivers at work but caregivers at home. So whether that be for young children or an aging parent, having that flexibility to play those other important roles out of work.

And then I think the other big group has been with our more senior nursing staff, really looking at ways and areas outside of nursing ways that we can maybe have phased retirement and kind of offboarding ramps for people that want to slow down but don’t want to stop working altogether.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Yeah, that’s great. What do you think similarly, what are some of the biggest challenges? And you mentioned this a little earlier, but do you think that the rural footprint that we are in here, does that help or hinder?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

It depends on the role, whether it helps or hinders, you know, I think it’s a distinguishing factor and creates a different mission and vision for us, which can be an attraction factor for people. We also, our base largely in the Midwest and so sometimes people wanna stay there if they’ve got family and friends and this is home.

But I do think it is sometimes there’s a stigma that goes along with that that maybe does not attract folks from outside the Midwest until they come and visit or meet people from the Midwest.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

We’re seeing that too, right? (Laugh) Yes, yes. People are like, oh it’s nice here in South Dakota. Yes. Would you say that kind of that ultimate goal is to be the employer of choice in all of our markets? And if so, I would imagine that would really take a concerted effort to be that employer of choice.

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

That absolutely is our goal. We can’t do any of the work we do to serve patients and residents without having, you know, top-notch employees who feel like their job is incredibly important and feel like they’re valued for what they do. But what’s tricky about that and it is definitely challenging is that what each employee wants and needs is slightly different as well as what each different market within Sanford needs. So we have to make sure we provide tailored options for everybody.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Let’s talk about some specific examples of really some innovative ways that Sanford Health is engaging its workforce to be that employer of choice. We’ve talked about the work flexible policy, anything else? Can you give us kind of some examples? And I know that you have them ‘cause I’ve heard you talk a little bit about those in the past.

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

A few different changes that we’ve made this past year in response to our employee engagement survey is that we’ve revamped our benefits offerings. So in this new year in 2023, we are offering for the first time a paid caregiver leave and fertility treatment benefits for employees, which when you look at Sanford’s demographics from an employee perspective, we have a largely female childbearing year population. And so that’s been an incredibly loud that we’ve heard and that we’re answering.

One other area that comes to mind is just a focus we’ve been putting on psychological safety. We hear on our survey results again that there is a power dynamic that exists in health care and all industries, whether it’s physician to nurse or leader to employee and really trying to make sure that everybody feels like they are empowered to speak up, whether it’s about co-worker concern, a safety concern with the patient, whatever the issue is.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

You bet. And we see that in Sanford Health marketing. I know the SAFE initiative is system-wide, but we have a weekly huddle and people talk about those stories and lift them up so that they know that they’re able to speak up. And I think that’s wonderful and we’ve really seen some success specifically in marketing, but obviously that would be system-wide as well.

So you talk a little bit about, you know, listening to what our employees need, but I would assume that data helps inform our decisions too. And you mentioned the employee engage engagement survey that was last done in December of ‘22 and we did ask employees a number of questions about how they feel about their work, you know, how engaged they are, et cetera. And those responses really did tell a success story, didn’t they? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Yes, we were very happy with our results from the survey this year. Again, I think because employees are starting to see that we are listening and then not just listening but responding with actions and initiatives to respond to their, that we’re seeing some positive survey results, we’ve been able to increase our ENPS score, which is kind of your overall satisfaction. Are you likely to recommend Sanford as a place to work?

And then we are also seeing increases in our inclusiveness score as well as employees meaningful work score, which is wonderful. We want people to feel like there’s purpose in their work and they believe in the mission and vision of Sanford.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

I have a couple of numbers that came out of that. So in, in relation to those, the net promoter score for mental well-being, we ranked 13 points above the industry benchmark in that latest survey, which is amazing. Also, Sanford Health ranks in the top 25% among peers in the health care industry for that meaningful work, and inclusiveness is a strength.

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Another area that we should talk about where we’ve had some great success has been within diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sanford is fairly early on in its journey there just year two into having an actual head of DE&I. But in that time have had some great successes.

We now have diversity councils in most of our major markets and are working to engage individuals both at a physician, nurse level as well as executive level all the way down to anyone else that’s willing to engage.

And just had our first annual Diversity Week this past year at Sanford, which has allowed us an opportunity to really create an inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone.

Yes there is a huge component of health equity and just the impact on health outcomes for our patients that come to see us and just how much better their outcomes are if they are asked questions in a welcoming way. If doctors are trained on unique differences of differing identities that may influence how they show up in the doctor’s office and that they can respond to what they might need differently.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

And I know we’re doing a lot in terms of employee well-being. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Certainly. Our focus on employee well-being has really been about, I think first destigmatizing the need to ask for help. But we know that especially within health care, employees have been through a lot through COVID and we see a lot of burnout. So really equipping leaders and co-workers to have the resources and skills to be able to identify employees in need and connect them with resources, whether it be through our Employee Assistance Program where we have both in the moment support for employees that’s unlimited or free sessions to go visit a private counselor in person, as well as just weaving well-being tips into everyday activities that employees do.

So we’ve been weaving well-being into weekly emails, into huddle topics that we do as part of our SAFE initiative, into questions that leaders can ask as part of their regular employee rounding, just because we think it’s that important. And we know, I was reading something this morning that next to your spouse, your immediate leader has the greatest impact of anything else in your life on your well-being. And so when you think about that as a leader, that is very convicting in terms of how important it is, how you engage with your staff. And so having a leader that you know cares about you is incredibly important.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Oh, absolutely. I can speak from both sides of that, right? Being a leader of people, I think bring the humanity to work, right? Everybody has their lives outside of work and that’s important. And so just bring that humanity and also just understanding how important it is to have that supportive boss, which is wonderful. Another couple of examples you gave earlier: Can you talk about the IT team and what has happened in terms of success with them and it really was kind of born out of that COVID pandemic and the craziness there?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Yes. Our IT team was great enough to be one of our pilot groups when we were working on our working flexibly policy in rollout. And that team had a great success rate. They were able to have a 29% adoption of flexible work arrangements within their department. And it’s one of our larger corp service departments here at Sanford.

And I, what I think is the silver lining, not only have they received really positive feedback from their employees who feel like this is an added benefit, a reason they’re gonna stay with Sanford, promote it to others, but they’ve actually felt that from a business continuity perspective, because Sanford is a 24/7 operation as a health system, they can provide a better continuum of care to their clinical partners because they’re here and they have people that are working in early and a late shift because it works for their personal lives.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

That’s a wonderful story. I think it’s great that, you know, despite what went on with COVID, right, that we persevered and we found these solutions that we might not have looked at earlier. And so it’s just a wonderful success story for Sanford Health.

Wrapping it up here, and I know we have lots more we can talk about, and we’ll continue this conversation ‘cause it’s very important. Can we just end with talking about what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t in terms of employee engagement and how does that shape the strategy moving forward?

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

I would say the thing we’ve learned most importantly that doesn’t work is just, you know, me and my team sitting in a room and trying to decide what the next best strategy or initiative is. What really works is listening to our employees periodically, and right now we’re doing that twice a year to get their feedback.

Taking that to heart and watching trends and reading comments and themeing those comments so that we can have our initiatives and programming respond to what our employees are telling us they need. That’s a bit of a moving target, but we wanna be responsive to employees and we want them to know that what they’re telling us matters.

Ann Nachtigal (moderator):

Seems so simple, but I don’t think it’s, it isn’t always that simple. Right. Well, really appreciate you joining us today, Ashley. It was a great conversation and we will do more in the future.

Ashley Wenger-Slaba (guest):

Sounds great. Thank you.

Matt Holsen (host):

Thanks again. You’ve been listening to “Reimagining Rural Health,” a podcast series brought to you by Sanford Health. Hear more episodes in this series or other Sanford Health series on Apple, Spotify, and news.sanfordhealth.org. For Sanford Health News, I’m Matt Holsen, and thank you for listening.

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