The State of Workforce Engagement: Tapping into Generational Expectations

Added on Nov 7, 2019

By Lauren Keeley

As reported in a new white paper on the state of workforce engagement in health care, Press Ganey researchers analyzed responses from more than 1.8 million physicians, nurses, and other health care employees surveyed in 2018 and identified wide variation in engagement by profession, demographics, geography, and other variables. This blog series will deconstruct the findings to tease out those that are likely to have the greatest impact on organizational outcomes and will offer recommendations for driving and sustaining improvement. The focus of this month’s post is generational differences in engagement.

group of docs in hallwayWith the emergence of the latest generation of employees into the health care workforce (Generation Z, from 2001 on), the importance of bridging generation gaps has risen to the forefront of HR priorities, as many organizations now have five generations of employees, each with distinct needs and expectations, working side by side: traditionalists (born prior to 1944), baby boomers (1944–1963), Generation X (1964–1978), millennials/Generation Y (1979–2000), and Generation Z. In the health care industry, where the stakes are raised beyond operational considerations to the well-being of patients, strong workforce engagement is a necessity—staff engagement levels directly impact the safety, quality, and experience of patients’ care. Generational diversity gives way to tremendous opportunity for developing targeted workforce improvement efforts, but in order to bridge generation gaps, organizations first need to know where they are and what’s driving them.

Press Ganey’s recent white paper, Health Care Workforce Special Report: The State of Engagement, provides answers at the national level that can help guide local efforts. It shows that millennials, both physicians and employees, have the lowest engagement scores across generational lines. At face value, this statistic is alarming: Millennials currently comprise the largest portion of the health care workforce at 53.5%, with that proportion projected to rise to 75% by 2030. Yet, according to Press Ganey consultant Matt Turner, it’s important to consider this statistic within a broader perspective.

“Millennials are not inherently disengaged,” explained Turner. “Like prior generations, they are the least engaged during the first five years of their tenure, after which their activation rises over time. We’ve seen the same curve for the past 15 years, so instead of feeding a narrative of disengagement, organizations should focus on creating an environment that enables activation to occur.”

The white paper illustrates Turner’s assessment. A measurement of engagement scores by length of service reveals that employees and physicians experience a decline in activation (the degree of engagement with work) in their first five years of employment. At this point in time, most millennials are in the three- to five-year tenure spot, indicating it is more likely that their career stage explains the association with low engagement, rather than intrinsic qualities of the generational cohort.   

Even though engagement patterns shift naturally with time, it is still important to address each generation’s current engagement needs. The retirement of baby boomers and the influx of millennials into the workforce—with a small portion of Generation Xers bookended between the two—calls for new strategies to deal with the drastic shift and disproportionate generational composition. For one, organizations can appeal to career trajectory to keep millennials engaged.

“With the impending mass retirement of baby boomers over the next five years, there will be more opportunities for millennials to grow into larger leadership roles,” said Turner. “Instead of dreading the disruption, employers should view the shift as an opportunity to engage millennials on their career development, a workplace criterium that they value as a cohort.” 

On a larger scale, organizations can engage their generationally diverse workforces by identifying the informational needs of each cohort, then tailoring messaging accordingly, advised Turner.

“Anyone who grew up technology enabled expects a degree of transparency from both leaders and peers when disseminating and receiving information,” he noted. Younger generations are also comfortable using lots of transmission tools, and therefore expect greater frequency from all levels of colleagues. On the other hand, traditionalists and baby boomers tend to be of the mindset that information should only be shared if it is absolutely necessary and relevant.

“At most jobs these days, there is multidimensional, simultaneous communication going on—email, phone, Web conference, instant messaging,” Turner said. “But I still have clients who have trouble appealing to their older workers to use email, even though they know how to.”

To address varying communication preferences in a multigenerational workforce, organizations should invest in a dynamic internal communication structure “dedicated to tailoring communications to reach a multigenerational audience,” Turner suggested. As an example, he cited Northwell Health, the largest health care provider and private employer in New York with more than 61,000 employees, which developed the myNorthwell app to resolve industry-wide communication challenges. Overall, the app appeals to a growing millennial workforce while supplementing other existing communication channels. One of its many features is the ability to segment user groups, resulting in targeted communications for a diverse user base.

By acknowledging and understanding generational cohorts, HR leaders can develop comprehensive communication strategies that meet the unique needs of each group and nurture a robust workforce that is both aligned with the organizational mission and engaged in its pursuit.