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One-on-one with... Dianne Timmering

September 19, 2012
by Pamela Tabar, Associate Editor
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Dianne Timmering

When long-term care executives strategize on ways to woo quality employees that fit their corporate culture, spirituality isn’t often the first concept on the strategy desk. But Signature HealthCARE has made spirituality a key pillar of its corporate structure and a respected part of its employee retention strategy—and the company has the metrics to prove it works.

The Louisville, Ky.-based LTC company has a company-wide department of spirituality to foster the personal growth of its 13,000 employees as well as its residents. The department added full-time, interdenominational chaplains to assist residents with their needs and cultural traditions. Soon, however, the employees were interacting with the chaplains as much as the residents were.

In 2011, Signature completed a retroactive study of 12 of its communities, comparing financial, clinical and employee-related data for the years before and after the installation of the new multi-faith chaplain program. Quality measures surged during the year the program began: Pressure ulcers, pain reports and the use of restraints plummeted, while resident ADLs went up. Nursing retention rose from 55 percent in 2008 to 77 percent one year later. Turnover rates and terminations were cut in half. These days, 80–90 percent of new applicants say they’ve applied because of the company’s unique corporate culture and approach.

Signature’s Dianne Timmering, vice president of spirituality, speaks with Long-Term Living’s Associate Editor Pamela Tabar on how the company’s bold experiment has become a hallmark of its leadership, an industry example in employee management and an unexpected marketing driver.

Why is a spiritually open workplace such a key component to healthy, happy employees?

Most people are involved in the noise of the world, so they never truly realize what they’re capable of or who they are. One of the ways we recruit and retain is through the intrinsic, motivational value that spirituality brings. When you come to work at Signature, you don’t need to leave your spiritual skin at the door. If the employee wants nothing to do with a god or spirituality, that’s fine. But our employees have permission to pray, or to pray with a resident if they wish. We built an ROI [return on investment] on the value it would bring to staff retention, clinical outcomes and recruitment.

How has the spirituality aspect helped to combat job stress and burnout?

We’re educating our stakeholders all the time on how to avoid burnout. But reducing stress on the job also takes education and leadership training. It takes teaching employees how to prioritize. We’ve also just launched an emotional intelligence learning model about conflict resolution. We do a lot of listening among ourselves. When a problem comes up, we can address it immediately.

Do you think Signature’s attitude toward its employees trickles down, making your caregivers better at listening to the residents?

It definitely does. The more “whole” the stakeholders are, the better care they can deliver. We have to be active listeners. Our residents are an elderly, fragile population, and a lot of them have cognitive disabilities. We have to be able to meet the needs of residents who can’t express themselves. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid has done studies on the efficacy of meeting the spiritual needs of residents. But it’s a constant education to let the employee base know they have permission to embrace their spirituality.

What side benefits have emerged from your use of spirituality as a corporate value?

In the early days we had an employee assistance program (EAP) as part of our wellness benefits. But the chaplain program became so popular that we found we didn’t need the EAP anymore. The employee utilization numbers had plummeted because they were using the chaplains instead. That was a bottom-line savings, and we started seeing an impact on employee retention. It also had an impact on customer satisfaction because the families saw the residents had someone to talk to, and it had a great impact on residents completing their therapy. That’s direct ROI and mitigation of complaints simultaneously—and all in a for-profit environment. We made some mistakes early on, but we built this program to welcome employees for who they are. Seven years later, it’s the power of love and the sanctity of respect that has moved mountains through this program.

How does the spirituality department interact with residents, in addition to answering religious needs?

The spirituality department is not siloed in our organization. It’s fully integrated in our clinical and financial models. We attend the at-risk meetings, and the chaplains are an intrinsic part of encouraging residents to finish their therapy. Since 65–70 percent of our residents go home, a huge part of our job is to help them fight depression and have the hope to get well.

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