Just-in-time Recognition

"Employee-reward programs can be so unrewarding. The plaques, tchotchkes with logos, goofy contests and ham-handed presentations tend to backfire. It’s not that they’re all bad, but too often they seem like empty gestures supported by upper management, administered by a less-than-enthused middle management and received by underwhelmed staffers. All when an honest thanks would have gone further.”

Jared Sandberg, The Wall Street Journal

Many of the hospitals I work with believe recognition is important. Most have formal reward/recognition programs. In almost every hospital that has conducted an employee survey, recognition is one of the top opportunities for improvement, as comments indicate that employees do not feel appreciated. So why is appropriate recognition such a challenge?

Perhaps the most significant barrier to successful recognition is the hectic pace of the health care environment. Managers must keep up with documentation, meet organizational metrics, do performance appraisals, attend meetings and work a shift or two. Staff members have little time for meaningful interaction, and race out the door at the end of 12-hour shifts just grateful for the chance to get off of their feet. Senior leaders struggle with physician issues, quality and financial metrics and board governance. In the course of day-to-day work, simple human gestures of thanks fall off the radar.

Most hospitals throw some type of recognition program together, but these are often haphazard. In other cases, programs are more formal with committees, policies and a long list of requirements. There are forms for nominating co-workers for a “Hero Award” or “Caught You Caring” award. Properly designed and run, these programs can energize employees through friendly competition and the thrill of achievement. Nominations from co-workers can amount to a victory in their own right. An annual awards dinner is often a treat for winners and non-winners alike.

And yet, they are not equal to the power of a heartfelt, timely thank-you, which often provides the inspiration to help most people make it through a tough day.

But when was the last time senior leadership stopped by the ED at 3 a.m. to thank the staff? Or, when was the last time the CEO dropped into the housekeeping department to let the staff know she noticed that their patient satisfaction scores improved dramatically over the last quarter?

Your hospital’s chaplain may just be “doing her job,” but did you thank her for coming in at 3 a.m. to comfort a mother who lost a child? How about the social worker whose heart is overwhelmed as she tries to balance needs of the patient with the needs of the hospital to reduce length of stay?

The information technology department is the frequent recipient of enraged, frustrated phone calls, but did you thank the IT staff member who came in late at night to repair a server issue? And speaking of physicians, did you recognize the anesthesiologist who missed his daughter’s piano recital last weekend because he was called in to help with that emergency C-section?

Often, we recognize people when they have done something dramatic or out of the ordinary. We hear moving stories about how health care workers have touched the lives of others in an amazing way. These stories are wonderful and they remind us that in health care we have the opportunity to make a difference.

But it’s easy to get discouraged just “doing the job.” We begin to think that perhaps we don’t matter, that we haven’t made a difference in a while and that the extra hours we give to the hospital are just not appreciated. A word of thanks on a rough day, when the job has not felt rewarding, means far more than a trinket, meal ticket or chocolate bar.

The world’s best recognition program seems empty if it isn’t part of an organizational culture where appreciation is expressed every day, face-to-face. Don’t let formal programs take the place of a genuine “thank-you.”