Our Take

Bolster employee engagement amid Covid-19

15 Minute Read

Most health systems must bolster staff engagement right now, amid historic health and financial crises. Covid-19 has pushed frontline staff to emotional exhaustion, yet executives must still ask them for more to move their organizations forward. Here we isolate five imperatives for strapped executives to bolster engagement and ready your workforce for the tough trade-offs organizations now face.


The pre-Covid reality

Health systems were benefiting from relatively strong workforce engagement prior to Covid-19. This statement may seem shocking in light of well chronicled and pervasive labor challenges, such as clinician burnout, workplace safety, and changing job expectations. But it is accurate.

Health system leaders had long embraced the centrality of team engagement to achieve high performance and advance nearly any strategic aim, and most were investing significant resources to act on this conviction. Year after year their organizations solicited input from staff members about their workplace experience, distilled the most promising opportunities for improvement, and launched tailored initiatives. And nationwide, engagement levels rose slowly but meaningfully across the last half decade.

Health system engagement on the rise pre-Covid

There was still much room for improvement prior to Covid-19. On average, fewer than half of health system staff were engaged, and again, strains on their well-being were pervasive. But overall engagement in the mid-forties constituted a high-water mark for health care providers and more than doubled out-of-industry benchmarks. In sum, the lion’s share of health systems had built up the depth of commitment and buy-in needed among clinicians and other team members to advance more dramatic changes and weather tough patches.

Engagement benchmarks: 48% clinical staff engagement, 37% RN engagement, 35% employed physician engagement, 20% employee engagement out of industry


Current reality

Covid-19 has pushed the health care workforce to emotional exhaustion and now threatens to erode in months the strong levels of engagement health systems spent a decade building—and need more than ever to get through the pandemic and operationalize planned strategies. This outlook describes both frontline caregivers who are stretching every way imaginable to ensure patients receive needed care as well as sidelined employees who are waiting for facilities to reopen and patients to return. Purpose and financial security are foundational engagement drivers, and this second group is now struggling with both. Put another way, Covid-19 has called out how well our health care workforce was set up to withstand a crisis measured in weeks but not months.

Worse yet, most health systems must ask even more of their workforce to regain their financial footing. Executives must push forward with efforts to ramp up volumes and reduce costs to offset the severe drop in revenues spurred by Covid-19. Embedded in such efforts are the four additional workforce asks highlighted directly below.

Asking a lot more of our workforce to move forward

So how can health system leaders bolster workforce engagement right now, amid historic health and financial crises and scant time and resources? Clearly seeing what you are asking of your workforce and continuously recognizing their professional contributions are both essential but not sufficient. Executives must also ensure they sustain a trustworthy, supportive work environment. To do so, we strongly urge you to heed these five imperatives:


Five imperatives to ready the workforce for tough trade-offs ahead


  • Imperative

    Ensure staff are safe and feel safe when working

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  • Imperative

    Reinvigorate your staff input channels and act on what you can

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  • Imperative

    Don’t sugarcoat the challenge ahead

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  • Imperative

    Plan for your worst-case scenarios so you don’t go back on even one commitment

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  • Imperative

    Transition your leaders from sprint mode to marathon mode

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Parting thoughts

You must prepare the workforce for difficult trade-offs ahead. Use the questions below to identify where you need to do more to bolster engagement.

Ensure staff are safe and feel safe when working.

  • How are you assessing staff’s perceptions of safety?

  • How are staff shaping your organization’s safety standards?

Reinvigorate your staff input channels and act on what you can.

  • What meaningful changes were made in the last month in response to staff feedback? If you picked five frontline team members at random and asked them about these changes, would they know about the changes and how you incorporated frontline input?

Don’t sugarcoat the challenge ahead.

  • What information are you sharing with staff now that you weren’t sharing in January?

  • How are you helping staff understand the market forces impacting the organization?

  • How are you translating board presentations for frontline staff?

Plan for your worst-case scenarios so you don’t go back on even one commitment.

  • Have you identified specific triggers that signal when further spending cuts are necessary?

  • Do you know what responsive action steps you will take if all triggers are tripped?

Transition your leaders from sprint mode to marathon mode.

  • What have you told leaders they can de-prioritize or stop doing altogether?

  • How have you updated development opportunities to account for new demands on your leaders?
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