Employee Engagement Employee Recognition

How to improve employee engagement in healthcare

Could employee engagement be the key to a better healthcare system?

That’s what some experts believe. A 2022 study of over 80 hospitals over 6 years in Victoria, Australia, uncovered that greater employee engagement was a major driving factor in helping healthcare providers reduce costs, improve treatment effectiveness, and even prevent complications such as the spread of infections.

The researchers found that even as little as a 1% improvement in engagement correlated with a reduction in complications and readmissions. These issues aren’t solely the concerns of those within hospitals, but also other healthcare facilities like senior care homes, as well as organizations which provide support services for the sector as a whole.

As these organizations struggle with patient overloads, resource limitations, and other issues, improving healthcare employee engagement is one of the few impactful things people leaders in the space may have some control over and be able to action. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into engagement across the healthcare sector, what can cause it to drop, and what you can do about it.  

The importance of employee engagement in healthcare

While it’s important in all industries, employee engagement in healthcare arguably matters more than in any other sector because the stakes are so high. 

Whether they are clinical staff like doctors and nurses or non-clinical staff like administrators or suppliers, everyone working in a healthcare environment is playing a crucial role in delivering care to vulnerable people. To deal with the pressures, comply with safety standards, and prevent mistakes, everyone involved needs to be fully present and invested in their work.

If they aren’t, the consequences have far greater ramifications, and have been shown to negatively affect patient outcomes. This study in particular, drew a very clear line between the level of employee engagement and patient safety standards. It also highlighted the role of engagement in reducing turnover and absenteeism, both of which can put a strain on staff that are present and increase the risk of mistakes.

Simply put, engaged healthcare workers are motivated to stay in their jobs, deliver the very best care, and strive to create safe, happy environments for patients. Disengaged staff are more likely to leave, and those that stay may not put in the effort required to deliver high quality care.

This applies even to those not directly delivering patient care. Most healthcare facilities depend on a range of support staff like administrators, suppliers, custodial staff, and food services workers to help supplement the care they deliver to patients. An employee in these roles who makes a mistake or is lax about complying with safety regulations can easily contribute to a negative patient outcome. Everyone involved is important, and has a role to play.

Causes of low employee engagement in healthcare

The causes of low employee engagement in healthcare can vary from individual to individual, and are often caused by a variety of factors rather than one overarching problem. However, here are a few commonly cited issues the sector is facing which may be contributing to disengagement amongst staff.

Understaffed and overworked

The healthcare sector has been facing a labor shortage for some time, and experts predict that it isn’t going away any time soon. With many existing workers reaching retirement age, as well as the ageing population causing higher patient numbers, the WHO has predicted that there could be a shortage of as much as 18 million frontline workers by the end of the decade.

For those who remain, this means being constantly understaffed and overworked, which is a surefire way to cause low employee engagement in healthcare staff.


With overwork comes stress and, eventually, burnout. The combination of staff shortages, the toll of the pandemic on the health system, and the general stresses of working in such high-pressure environments has led to more than half of healthcare workers reporting symptoms of burnout, insomnia, PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Gen Z: Expectations vs. Reality

Another issue that may be at the heart of healthcare employee disengagement is disillusionment among younger workers who are new to the field. 

Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) are actually very enthusiastic about the idea of a career in healthcare – at least at the beginning. The comparative job security versus other sectors, as well as the sense of purpose that comes with the territory, makes it an attractive career option, and one 2021 study estimated that as many as 38% of Gen Z employees planned to work in healthcare.

Unfortunately, this positivity doesn’t last. When they enter the field, this generation struggles with the pressures of the job, becomes frustrated with management, and ultimately regret their decision. In other recent studies, 70% of Gen Z workers expressed a desire to leave their jobs, and 44% were considering leaving the field altogether.

The overall picture being painted is that of an industry that struggles to match the expectations of the modern employee, and is losing passionate young people as a result.

There are of course several other things that can cause low healthcare employee engagement, including systemic issues that need to be addressed, and it’s important to assess your company’s specific culture to make sure you fully understand your problems. It’s also important to make sure you’re accurately judging your employees’ levels of engagement, and not misinterpreting their actions.

Barriers to employee engagement in healthcare

Of course, people leaders at healthcare organizations aren’t actively neglecting their employees' engagement. Mostly, professionals in the sector are just as dedicated to their employees as their employees are to patients, and are trying their best to create the best possible work environment. 

The big issue is that there are often numerous barriers to employee engagement in healthcare organizations that prevent HR professionals from making progress. Here are just a few of the most common problems.

Strained resources

Healthcare organizations across the globe have been under pressure for years to make every penny count. And when the choice is between initiatives or programs to improve employee wellbeing and spending on more practical initiatives to impact care, it can be easy to see why the latter is often preferred by leadership.

But while patient care is always the priority, the two are not mutually exclusive. As we’ve outlined earlier in the post, the links between happy, motivated healthcare teams and better patient outcomes are well known. HR leaders in the space need to surface this to their leaders, and make sure that they understand the tangible benefits of focusing on healthcare employee engagement.

Divides across departments and functions

The workforce at any healthcare facility can include everything from physicians to food services workers. Even among specific departments, you can see massive disparities in job function, backgrounds, education levels, and personalities. 

This diversity can often breed divides where different subsections of employees might have different priorities and working styles, which can foster disconnects and hinder collaboration. At the end of the day, everyone plays an important role in delivering care to patients and ensuring their safety, so it’s crucial to have your entire team pulling in the same direction.

Suboptimal organizational structures

Another issue that can hinder healthcare employee engagement is organizational structure. Whether by design or default, some healthcare organizations can be overly rigid and hierarchical, and make it harder for people leaders in the space to change things. This can hinder progress, as they face an uphill battle in introducing new programs, policies or initiatives.

It’s a tough job

Last but not least, it’s important not to discount the fact that working in healthcare in any capacity can be very difficult at times. While it can be incredibly rewarding to provide essential care and support to people who need it, the pressure and responsibility is immense. 

And when things don’t go right, as they sometimes won’t, the consequences can weigh heavily on those in the sector. Even if they’ve done everything right, things don’t always work out, and that can take a toll over time. People leaders in the sector need to accept that there won’t always be an easy solution to make things better for their staff.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try everything you can to make a difference. From nurses to custodial staff to administrators, the healthcare industry is full of extraordinary people who have dedicated their lives to helping others, and they deserve the best possible working environment you can give them.

Leadership best practices to improve employee engagement in healthcare

So what can you do to improve employee engagement in healthcare? Below, we’ve detailed some practical solutions and approaches that you can take to help move your organization in the right direction. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should provide a good starting point to help you build an action plan for your team.

Set smart goals for employee engagement in healthcare

While engagement can often be seen as a very nebulous, intangible concept, you should approach improving it like any other project. Define your goals, the steps you will take, and how you will measure success as clearly as possible.

One method that can be helpful is to set SMART goals for your plan. SMART goals are a simple way of making sure your objectives are as clear as possible, by simply checking whether they are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable 
  • Relevant 
  • Time-bound

While it’s just project management 101, this system can be an easy way to define the scope of your plans, and make sure that your efforts don't go off-track.

Prioritize employee wellness

When considering what actions your leadership can take to improve employee engagement in healthcare, it is crucial that employee wellbeing is at the forefront of your thoughts. Employees in the sector have been vocal about the stresses they have been under over the past few years, and employers clearly need to do more to look after them.

This can be easier said than done, of course, especially if you have limited resources and budget. But given its prominence in the thoughts of your employees, anything from improved health benefits to offering more flexible schedules, to generally creating more conscientious, positive environments could all arguably be more important to improving engagement than any other initiative.

Focus on leadership ‘soft skills’

No matter what healthcare employee engagement initiatives you might introduce, you can’t overcome substandard management. With that in mind, arguably the most important thing people leaders in healthcare can do to move the needle in this area is to make sure their managers are trained to be effective leaders.

This means focusing less on processes and tasks and more on the soft skills of people management, like delivering feedback effectively, mentoring, and building personal relationships with employees.

Not only is this crucial, but it’s also one of the easiest areas that HR professionals in the field can address with limited resources. As a recent study on employee engagement in healthcare concluded, “the hidden potential is especially large in so called ‘soft areas’, such as leadership style, communication and organisational climate, which are also less expensive to manage than other aspects of the work environment.”

Create inclusive environments

Promoting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) is one of the most prevailing current trends in employee engagement in healthcare. Creating a more inclusive environment is key to not only keeping employees from all backgrounds happy, but also to attracting a more diverse talent pool to combat the industry’s labour shortage. The more inclusive your workplace is, the more people you can attract from all walks of life.

A focus on DEIB can also make a difference for patients. Research has shown a more diverse healthcare workforce can improve health equity for patients, and help to foster more trust and better communication in patient relationships.

Think about employee engagement activities in healthcare

Activities and initiatives to bring staff together socially can have a dramatic impact on morale, and help teams build connections and collaboration. That might sound like an obvious statement, but there isn’t always a huge number of employee engagement activities in hospitals, private care facilities, and other fast-paced healthcare environments. 

With resources stretched and patient care always the top priority, people leaders in the space don’t always have the capacity to throw staff parties, hold corporate improv classes, or any of the other team-building activities that you might see in other workplaces. Where it’s appropriate, though, finding ways to show your appreciation by bringing your team together could be beneficial, and could yield outsized results.

Show your healthcare staff some recognition

As we’ve detailed before, recognition can be an invaluable tool to help improve employee engagement, helping to motivate staff, connect teams across departments and locations, and encourage long-term career development.

With healthcare professionals feeling overworked and underappreciated, a simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way.

Using recognition to improve healthcare employee engagement

If you want to learn more about how recognition can help improve employee engagement in healthcare, check out Employee Recognition for Healthcare: The Complete Guide. In this free eBook, we detail everything you need to know to create an impactful program in a healthcare environment, including:

  • Why recognition in healthcare matters more than ever
  • How it impacts engagement, productivity, and more
  • The challenges of building an effective program in the sector
  • How to make recognition work in healthcare organizations

The guide also includes a 4-page fillable worksheet to help you plan a program that fits your organization’s unique needs and goals. Fill out this form to download your copy:

Employee Recognition for Healthcare

The complete guide to building an impactful recognition program for the healthcare sector and a culture where your team can thrive.

Skai Dalziel

Written by Skai Dalziel

Skai is the Co-Founder of Guusto. He leads the Customer Success Team, and loves helping HR leaders build workplace culture by sharing his experiences from working with thousands of companies.

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