Engaging the Millennial Workforce in Patient Safety: 10 Action Items

Added on Jul 11, 2017

millenialsBuilding and sustaining a safety culture is a top priority of health care systems nationwide, and the youngest members of today’s health care workforce—the millennial generation—may be just the partners they need to accomplish this. In order to harness the power of this generation of young adults, who will account for half of the workforce by 2020 and 75% of it by 2030, it’s important first to try to understand them, or more appropriately “us,” as I am a millennial.

During a recent presentation to the Ohio Association of Healthcare Quality on engaging millennial health care professionals in patient safety, I asked the audience to think of the word that first comes to mind when they think of “millennials” (those born between 1981 and 2003).

The audience responses ranged from the relatively benign, with words such as “liberal,” “social” and “sensitive,” to the culturally expected, with terms such as “selfie,” “technology” and “iPhone,” to the downright harsh, with labels such as “entitled,” “lazy” and “self-centered.” 

I wasn’t surprised. Older generations have a less-than-positive impression of millennials. Many believe we are disloyal, impatient, self-important, overly confident and inappropriately demanding. It’s possible that our early exposure to technology and use of social media has contributed to this perception. Many challenges faced by older generations have been made significantly easier for us. I’ve never had to drive somewhere without a GPS, nor have I had to wait for the news or to have a question answered.

Fortunately, not everybody feels this way. Simon Sinek, author of the book Leaders Eat Last & Start with Why, writes that millennials, together with Generation X (1965 to 1980), “are going to shake things up and change the world for the better.” He suggests that millennials have the work ethic of baby boomers (1946 to 1964), the loyalty and discipline of traditionalists (1900 to 1945) and the technological aptitude of Generation X.

Furthermore, sociologists say we tend to be quick learners and are flexible in our thinking, comfortable with change and hard-working. We want to be meaningfully engaged in work that matters. We expect communication founded on mutual trust, and we thrive on finding better, more efficient ways of operating. 

These very characteristics—meaningful work, mutual respect and continuous improvement—are also the underpinnings of an effective, sustainable safety culture. Health care systems that keep these ideals in focus and strive to nurture a work environment that reflects them will be best positioned to attract and engage their millennial workforce as partners in the safety culture journey. The following 10 action items provide a directional road map.

1. Create a sense of purpose around achieving Zero Harm. Millennials are seeking a sense of purpose in their careers and jobs. In a recently reported survey of nearly 4,000 millennials, aged 18–34, more than 60% said that social responsibility plays a significant role in choosing where to work and 75% said they valued a purposeful career over salary.

2. Shape culture with story. When you share stories of patient harm and stories of saving patients from harm you make harm visible, and once harm is visible, it’s easier to take action. Millennials, in particular, thrive off of stories because they are so involved in telling and hearing their own stories through social media. You can tell your stories through your organizations’ website and social media outlets.

3. Establish organizational structures that foster mutual respect. Work to reduce power distance relative to safety, especially inter- and intra-professional and generational power distance. Recognize and do not tolerate overt or subtle disrespect.

4. Support teamwork. The results of the millennial workforce survey indicated that 88% of millennials prefer a collaborative culture rather than a competitive one. In terms of keeping our patients safe, we need the sharing of lessons learned, wingmen who have our backs and teams who are comfortable working together.

5. Support open communication. Millennials are constant communicators. All generations desire more positive, affirming feedback than corrective, negative feedback, and millennials in particular expect feedback often. (How am I doing so far?)

6. Be transparent with safety progress. Share events of harm that have occurred, how they occurred and what’s being done to reduce the risk of recurrence.

7. Improve the systems in which people work by seeking out and finding problems and inefficiencies. Some of the ways to find problems include
•   Rounding to influence: Having individual conversations focused on safety with your employees so that they know what’s important to you and you can influence their behavior,
•   Creating a positive event reporting culture,
•   Holding a daily Safety Huddle for situational awareness and escalation of concerns and
•   Using local learning systems such as learning boards to engage team members in finding problems. 

8. Fix the problems you find. Nagging problems are disengaging for millennials who are able to resolve most issues quickly through an Internet search or social media query.

9. Incorporate technology and innovation. Millennials have an affinity for technology. Engage them in safety efforts by focusing on innovation and adopting intuitive technology that enables safe care.

10. Offer learning through simulation. Millennials were the first generation to have video games throughout their entire childhood. Interventions (education, town halls, workshops) that use simulation, competition, social sharing and audience response are familiar and comfortable to them and will likely support high engagement.

In addition to these action items, creating future generations of safety-conscious health care workers requires constant reinforcement, early and often. Future nurses and physicians should be socialized to behavioral expectations, error prevention tools and safety science when they are still in school so that when they come to our health care organizations, they do so with high expectations for a culture of safety.