ICAA Issues New Report on Employee-First Model in Senior Living Communities

As colleagues at the International Council on Active Aging® (ICAA) Forum 2021 think tank came together to address the staffing crisis in senior living, they arrived at a bold recommendation: Apply the person-centered philosophy to each worker to build an employee-first culture where people want to work.

The return on investment in an employee-first workplace has been realized in other industries and documented by research, as detailed in a new report from ICAA titled “The future is an employee-first workplace.” When organizations focus first on staff persons’ needs, professional growth and a positive work environment, each team member is more likely to deliver the best service to residents and customers.

“The labor challenges in senior living are not new, but the pandemic has made this even worse,” says Colin Milner, CEO of ICAA. “As we move toward person-centered solutions for our customers – our residents – it makes sense to focus more on person-centered solutions for our staff also. Shifting the attitudes and assumptions about the senior living workforce is the new direction needed today.”

In an employee-first workplace, staff members are equal partners with the employer in realizing the organization’s mission. Parallel to the concept of person-centered care, the needs, abilities and goals of each worker are discovered and respected, and the workplace adjusts to accommodate them. The dimensions of wellness frame the employees’ experience to aid their physical, mental and emotional health.

Employee-first philosophy and action items
ICAA Forum colleagues identified 28 tactics for a person-centered, employee-first workplace, organized under nine strategic areas:

  1. Make employee wellness a fundamental value. It is well-documented that workers are experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and frustration. In an employee-first workplace, the mental and physical health of each staff member is prioritized so that they can best support the overall health of residents.
  2. Empower local leaders and staff members. Although an organization’s brand may define multiple locations, it is implemented at individual locations, which differ due to geography and resources. Local conditions influence everyone from executive directors to housekeepers, so enabling them to make decisions and act with initiative provides superior service to residents and their families.
  3. Build a culture of trust with authentic communication and actions. Trust means every executive, manager and staff member is honest and reliable and acts with integrity. When the organization’s leadership values staff members, then everyday interactions, job descriptions and reward systems incorporate those values. Trust in the organization means input from workers is heard and acted upon.
  4. Shift the human resources function from transactional to transformational. Redirect human resources employees to concentrate on positive employer-worker relationships that align with business objectives. Because staff members are the link between the organization and residents, they are vital to organizational success.
  5. Update the recruitment philosophy and tactics. Attract new people to the field by adopting marketing approaches that emphasize how senior living provides meaningful work, growth opportunities and joyful, positive interactions among residents, families and team members. Adjustments to job descriptions and scheduling are proven tactics.
  6. Prioritize training, career paths and professional development. Professional development and career paths are desired by younger people, who could be recruited, and key to retaining current staff members. Updated technical and interpersonal skills are required to best meet the needs of those who have a home in senior living.
  7. Prioritize professional development of executives and managers. Executives and managers must shift to a coaching style based in emotional intelligence and the soft skills that create a trusted leader. Managers likewise benefit from upskilling in contemporary management styles, while executives are rewarded for their own professional development and staff retention.
  8. Utilize technology to support staff. Technology is valuable for staff members and residents, but does not replace people in the workforce. Educating staff members on why and how technology will benefit them, along with ongoing training and support, return the investment in technologies.
  9. Update the revenue model. Board members, executives and financiers can develop a new senior living business model that recognizes how critical the workforce is to the future sustainability of the business. Staff members are the source of indirect and direct revenue, and often the reason why people choose senior living.