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Giving employees a voice

Open communication helps Women's Hospital thrive in uncertainty

Woman's Hospital in Louisiana has endured much in recent years, from hurricanes and floods to state budget cuts and the construction of a $327 million facility that left some employees worried about its financial future.

But it has managed to thrive through uncertainty in large part by communicating with employees every step of the way.

When the Baton Rouge hospital broke ground on its new facility in 2008, some employees thought the move was financially risky and questioned the need for a new building, so hospital leaders tried to get them excited about the project by making them part of the process.

They consulted with staff on the design before the architectural plans were drawn, from the size and configuration of patient rooms to the bricks on the fašade to the waiting room furniture.

“We wanted to create some excitement about the new hospital because people were anxious about it, so we constructed several walls of brick in our plaza and asked employees to pick one,” said Teri Fontenot, who has been CEO of Woman's Hospital since 1996. “It was our 'Pick the Brick' campaign. Each wall was about 20 feet by 40 feet and in a different color of brick and employees could vote on which brick they liked best.”

When it was time to design patient rooms, hospital leaders bucked the architects' recommendations and listened to the nurses who were asked to design the ideal layout.

Furniture and medical equipment were brought into a conference room where nurses could construct and deconstruct a room until they hit on a design that maximized workflow.

“At the time, our funding was unstable and we were about to go out and issue a lot of debt, so employees were worried,” Fontenot said. “But if we didn't move it would have been our eventual demise. We'd been at our location since 1968. It was no longer viable for us.

I think the employees thought, 'Everything is going fine so why move?' We wanted to make sure that they understood the process and why it was necessary.”

Employee morale took a hit during planning for the move, according to engagement surveys, but quickly recovered once it was completed in 2012, according to Donna Bodin, the hospital's human resources director. She attributed the comeback to strong employee communication efforts.


"My job is not supervision. It's removing obstacles and providing employees with the resources to do the best job for our patients. I don't feel like anybody works for me. I feel like I work for them."
Teri Fontenot
President and CEO
Woman's Hospital
Woman's Hospital's focus on building a culture of open communication and trust is one reason that the independent specialty hospital has landed on Modern Healthcare's Best Places to Work in Healthcare list every year since the awards program was launched 10 years ago. It's the only organization to earn that distinction.

The hospital has also garnered national recognition for its obstetrics, newborn and women's cancer care, both in patient satisfaction and health outcomes. In a largely rural state that falls far below the national average in rankings of health metrics, particularly for women, children and infants, the success of Woman's Hospital gives employees a sense of pride.



“I can't put into words the pride that I feel in working here,” said Kristian Friley, a nurse in the high-risk maternity unit. “Women confide in us because they trust us, and it feels great to be able to help them at such a happy time in their lives.

And the administration trusts and appreciates us. Even though I've only been here a year, my manager asked me to represent our unit in our upcoming annual giving campaign. They have faith in their employees whether you've been here one year or 20.”

For Lauryn Hanley, a customer service representative at the hospital's fitness center, being asked for her opinions makes her feel valued.

“The fact that they are always asking us what we think and taking polls and wanting to communicate with us makes me feel appreciated,” she said. “If there's an issue, I feel like I can take it to anyone here no matter what it is. Everyone here is approachable.”

Fontenot's goal is to create a workplace where every employee feels empowered, whether they are a supervisor a nurse or a gift shop employee.

“Our mission is clear, but sometimes it's hard to get nonpatient employees to understand how they can have an impact on our success,” she said.


When the hospital launched a patient safety awareness campaign to reduce surgical-site infections, Fontenot made sure that gift shop workers understood that they could make a great contribution by keeping the antiseptic cleanser in stock for patients to use before surgery.

“My job is not supervision,” she added. “It's removing obstacles and providing employees with the resources to do the best job for our patients. I don't feel like anybody works for me. I feel like I work for them.”

Woman's Hospital celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, but Fontenot said employees today are handpicked in the same way the founders built a staff.

“They knew who they wanted and who could continue their vision for the future,” she said. “When we hire, we hire for a candidate's attitude and how they fit into our culture. Woman's Hospital is based on treating the individual woman. That's why the founders named it 'woman's' in the singular and not women's. It's about taking into account the needs of the individual person. We will continue that tradition.”

Hanley, who is 60, grew up in Baton Rouge and has watched Woman's grow from a small community owned hospital founded by a group of 21 OB-GYNs to the nationally recognized institution that it is today.

“Woman's Hospital is very much a part of Baton Rouge and we're fortunate that they are part of our community,” she said. “It's been a delight to watch it evolve and become such a positive force in our community.”

Rita Pyrillis is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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