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Retention Strategies



Retain Experienced Employees With Workplace Accommodations

Are you seeking ways to lower employee turnover or vacancy rates while increasing job satisfaction?

Forget higher pay or more perks. Instead, adapt to the needs of your older workforce.

Accommodations can range drastically among companies, but all have a key purpose: to recruit and retain valued workers.

Consider the Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center in Greenville, S.C. Of its 2,500 nurses, 36 percent are age 50 or older, said Suzanne White, the hospital system’s vice president for patient care services and chief nursing officer.

In 2006, Greenville received a $75,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation designed to help organizations retain older workers. Since then, the hospital system has implemented a variety of changes that have made a significant impact on retention rates as well as reducing workplace injuries. For example, Greenville is expanding its safe-patient-handling program throughout its health system, which was initially implemented in 2005 at one of its community hospitals. Through the program, lifting equipment was purchased to help nurses move or transfer patients with less physical exertion.

White said the program contributed to cutting turnover rates for nurses in half, from approximately 20 percent to less than 10 percent. But it also offered a huge side benefit: Since the number of muscular-skeletal injuries dropped by 84 percent, nurses didn’t use any sick days related to these types of injuries.

By 2009, White believes nurses at each of Greenville’s five hospitals will have access to the lifting equipment.

“The average age of our nurses is 44, so we started thinking about the future and the need for us to retain nurses longer and hold on to the intelligence that is there,” White said. “We made it a point that when we’re thinking about renovation and construction, we would look at [accommodations].”

White pointed to other accommodations at Greenville:

  • Softer flooring for nurses to walk and stand on
  • Self-propelled patient beds that are easier to move
  • Mini-stations instead of centralized nursing stations. Nurses can sit in their stations observing patients through glass windows instead of walking down long corridors to patients’ rooms.
  • Supply cabinets located near patients’ rooms
  • A part time nurse-ergonomist position that focuses on patient handling. This role will become the full-time position of employee safety and ergonomics coordinator.

“It’s so important today that we retain the wisdom that nurses have as they get older,” she said. “Experienced nurses can mentor the young and develop intuition as time goes by. [Such practices] are critical for us to hold on to nurses as they age.”

Simple, Cheap and Effective

Employers typically spend less than $500 for employee accommodations, according to Anne Hirsch, project manager at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor. Considering the high cost of employee turnover, that’s really a great bargain for employers.

Hirsch recalled two examples of employers who spent less than $500 to retain long-term employees.

The first was a bus driver in Pennsylvania who was having difficulty listening to directions from dispatch over the phone. So his employer gave him a cell phone with text messaging. The other was a Michigan factory worker who inspected products on an assembly line for 10 hours a day. She was having trouble standing on the hard floor, so her employer gave her a sit-lean stool and anti-fatigue matting.

There are other examples. Sarah Endicott, a research scientist at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) for Workplace Accommodations, at the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, mentioned these scenarios:

Challenge: A computer specialist in her late 50s worked at a large college. Her job required her to meet with people from different departments across campus. However, walking great distances every day was becoming more and more difficult.

Solution: The college purchased a four-wheel scooter to minimize her daily walking and created a secure space for the scooter. Other companies who employ older workers with limited mobility reserve parking spaces for them near their facility’s main entrance.

Challenge: One employee in her late 60s staffed the technical-support desk at a nonprofit organization. She began experiencing hearing loss that could not be treated by hearing aids.

Solution: The nonprofit purchased a phone that automatically connects callers to a captioning service. The phone displays the written text of each caller’s words. The employee reads her questions and responds to them in her own voice. The cost of the captioning service is covered by Telecommunications Relay Service funds as part of Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Challenge: An architect in his late 50s developed arthritis and began having trouble writing manually.

Solution: His company purchased pens with a wider barrel for easier grip, rubber cylinders that could slide over any pen or pencil and gel-tip or felt-tip pens that didn’t require him to press hard to write.

Challenge: A machine operator in his early 50s who worked on the production floor was losing his hearing. Unfortunately, hearing aids were of little use. He could not hear the sound of the bell, which signaled his work breaks.

Solution: The employer issued him a beeper that vibrated in sync with the break bell so he always knew when to leave for breaks and when his shift ended.

Endicott points to other employees who sometimes have trouble viewing text on their computer screen or operating a keyboard or a mouse. She said employers may not realize that the latest versions of Microsoft’s operating systems include free, built-in accessibility options. For example, employees can enlarge the size of screen fonts, alter color contrasts, double or triple the size of their cursors, or even replace their standard keyboard with an onscreen keyboard that operates with their mouse.

Arm Chairs to Stretch Breaks

Need more tips? Consider enlarging the font size used on memos and other documents that are distributed to employees, said Deborah Read, an occupational therapist and ergonomic consultant who owns ErgoFit Consulting of Seattle.

Marion Somers, owner of Doctor Marion, a geriatric care management practice in Brooklyn, N.Y., suggested these ideas:

  • Provide chairs with arms to make it easier for employees to steady themselves while standing up from a seated position.
  • Invite Yoga and Tai Chi instructors to conduct classes during lunch breaks. While all age groups can participate, these exercises are especially older-worker friendly.
  • Encourage 10-minute walking or stretch breaks each morning and afternoon. Somers said this not only helps workers clear their heads and stimulates creativity, but it may also alleviate stiff muscles. If walking is done in pairs or in groups, it can also expand employees’ social network.

“Companies are just starting to wake up to the need to accommodate older workers,” said Somers. By doing so, employers can capitalize on their vast experiences to drive their companies forward. Otherwise, they can expect years of industry knowledge and skills to walk out their front door.

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