​With high employee turnover and staffing shortages, health care providers are properly re-examining programs intended to support their workforce. If providers want to engage and inspire their team members, they need to draw a distinction between employee appreciation, employee recognition, and caregiver recognition.

What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

Employers tend to focus on designing appreciation programs to express general admiration or gratitude to their workforce. A humorous card with a little gift or a stack of pizzas in the break room. Appreciation is nice, but it isn’t recognition—and it isn’t sufficient. A generic pat on the back isn’t the same as specific, programmatic, public recognition of the outstanding efforts of your employees.

In health care, there’s another important layer. While employee recognition is important—celebrating milestones and career advancement is worthwhile—recognizing their caregiving impacts both your employees and those they care for.

If recognition initiatives are structured solely to achieve employee satisfaction, health care facilities can miss recognizing the caring part of every employee’s job. There are many employees who have little clinical contact with patients and residents, yet they perform extraordinary acts of care—like the IT team member who helps a patient or resident make video calls to their grandchildren or the housekeeper who visits a fellow breast cancer patient daily. Every health care facility employee is a caregiver. How do you motivate all your employees to take that extra moment to be patient, kind, and empathetic?

Caregiver Recognition

Caregiver recognition can be a key driver of the health care trinity: safety, quality of care, and satisfaction. Experienced, engaged team members are more familiar with policies. They consistently produce higher safety scores and fewer citations. They work well as team members, provide improved quality care, and have higher retention rates. 

Inadequate compensation is surely a factor in staff turnover. Yet it’s both intuitive and well-documented that high staff turnover can be mitigated by non-monetary factors—such as recognition—which can pay off handsomely. Aside from exorbitant replacement costs, the hidden costs of staff turnover can be even more devastating. Increased patient safety errors, lower productivity, and a decline in quality of care are just the tip of the iceberg. These are amplified by declining patient and resident satisfaction, which ultimately harms business and customer reputation and top-line revenue.

Many hospitals and other large health care communities have initiated human resources (HR) employee recognition programs to reduce turnover and promote a positive employee experience. Acknowledging this need, HR information systems (HRIS) providers are beginning to integrate added software—often free—to their HR platform enabling staff to recognize one another. A software tool can facilitate recognition, but it is not a program.

A successful caregiver recognition program requires genuine partnership with your organization’s staff. It needs to incorporate your values and mission. It needs to be measured and analyzed to make sure it’s working in the best way for your team. It needs buy-in from leadership and accountable individuals who manage operations and continuity. It needs to focus on specific acts of care and rituals that encourage broad public recognition. It needs to promote a culture of teamwork, respect, and mutual appreciation.

Most importantly, it needs authenticity. A recent Gallup Workhuman study found that half of employees who say the recognition they receive at work isn’t authentic or equitable are actively watching for new employment opportunities. The same study shows that caregiver recognition programs, done right, can create a culture of recognition, saving companies millions of dollars annually.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to motivate and retain employees. Employee appreciation has its place. That simple pat on the back shows appreciation. It’s quick, easy and can work. Financial bonuses also show appreciation.

Moreover, when it comes to recognition, there can never be enough of it. HRIS systems have their place in recognizing employees. So do specialized programs, such as those for nurses. Homemade programs, such as employee-of-the-month, also have their place. That said, given that the core mission of health care is caregiving, there’s no substitute for recognition that targets specific acts of compassionate care and best practices across job roles and departments.

Nate HammeWhat any caregiver recognition program needs is active, enthusiastic, and conspicuous leadership support. As in other industries, health care leadership is as much about symbolism as it is about communicating an organization’s vision and strategy. Without fully engaged leadership, backed by sufficient funds and accountable support resources, caregiving recognition loses its steam over time and becomes unsustainable.

Investing that level of resources may feel like a stretch. But done right, caregiver recognition brings focus to our mission, which gets to the heart of why many of us have committed our lives to this industry and its opportunity to help others.

Nate Hamme is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ceca Foundation, a 501(c)(3 with a mission of lifting up employees to improve teamwork and patient care.