When COVID-19 cases surged in Texas in the summer of 2021, health systems buckled as bedside nurses dwindled. Houston officials warned that “a breaking point” was near due to the high demand of care and low supply of labor, according to the AP.
One organization impacted by this shortage was Memorial Hermann Health System, a 115-year-old organization with 17 hospitals across the Houston area. Turnover hit nearly 30% as the pandemic intensified, and the hospital saw the steepest decline in its nursing workforce in 20 years, according to the health system’s SVP and CHRO, Lori Knowles.
The nursing shortage pushed Memorial to test new staffing models, explore upskilling efforts and invest in staff support. HR teams across the U.S. made similar changes, Knowles noted, as they responded to the pandemic and other crises that marked 2020.
“The employer-employee pact that had been in place for so long fundamentally shifted,” Knowles said. “We met a confluence of pressures and influences we had never seen before. And organizations looked directly at HR to solve all of that.”
Still, Knowles chose to look on the bright side. “I’ve seen so many amazing things come out of this time,” she said.
It started with staffing
Memorial Hermann is a large operation. It employs more than 32,000 people across its 265 sites, which includes 17 hospitals. It’s one of the largest not-for-profit healthcare systems in Texas, and the biggest in Houston.
“Our vision is to create healthier communities now and for generations to come,” said Knowles, who has served as the organization’s CHRO for five years. “We talk about that all the time. It shapes how we think about the work we do. It shapes, from my perspective, how we think about our people.”
This mission guided Memorial as it first began to deal with the labor shortage and related challenges. Like many healthcare organizations, it turned to contract nursing, a fix Knowles was quick to critique. She noted its expense — rates for travel nurses exploded during the pandemic. In January 2020, the national average weekly pay rate for travel nurses was $1,894, according to nurse staffing platform Vivian Health. By December 2022, that figure had risen to $3,173.
Knowles also noted another downside of using contract nurses. “It’s detrimental to culture. It creates challenges with equity. It’s all these things when a large percentage of your workforce aren’t your employees who you’re paying a premium for.”
To ease these frustrations, Memorial Hermann looked to its internal staffing agency of more than 1,000 floating employees. Through this group, the organization now offers a number of flexible work programs, each prioritizing something different. One program caters to employees who want more time off, offering 13 weeks of work, followed by six weeks off. Another allows employees to work at the four closest hospitals to their homes. Yet another enables nurses to earn a higher rate by working at whichever hospital needs them most.
Memorial Hermann still uses contract nurses, but usage is down by more than 80% since the height of the pandemic, Knowles said.
“We’ve had to be creative to meet the needs of people while still providing great care to our patients,” Knowles said.
What emerged at Memorial: ‘Well Together’
As Knowles witnessed the events of 2020, she received a daunting task from Memorial Hermann CEO David L. Callender.
“We’re in the fall of 2020 and it’s dawning on all of us that COVID is not a short-term affair,” she recalled. “My CEO says to me: ‘We’re about to see a level of PTSD we’ve never seen. We’re going to have to figure out how to address that here.’”
Knowles wondered how to tackle such a project. She landed on listening: First to experts, then to her fellow leaders and finally to her employees.
As she listened, she learned. Her first realization was about the nature of the trauma she and her colleagues were experiencing. “This wasn’t going to be traditional PTSD. This was going to be collective,” she said. “And people were going to have to manage their day-to-day lives while going through this.”
Knowles next needed to learn how her people would manage this stress — and how her organization could help them through it. So, with HR, hospital chaplains, employee wellness directors, and physicians and nursing leaders, she began to study the employees that make up Memorial Hermann. The team borrowed a tactic from marketing and conducted a persona study. Eight types of employees emerged.
“Then we stepped back and said, ‘If those are the people who work here, what do they need?’” Knowles said. “We did entire listening tours, town halls to find out what people wanted. What can we do for you?”
People needed help with child care. People needed help dealing with inflation. People needed access to greater flexibility. To respond to these needs and unify their approach, Knowles and her team created Well Together. Well Together is a model for Memorial Hermann’s employee experience, Knowles said, that seeks to ensure its workers are:
- Encouraged to grow and develop.
- Supported in body and spirit.
- Inspired by a shared purpose.
- Valued as an individual.
This model orients Memorial Hermann’s approach to people, Knowles said. “In every decision we make, how do these five pillars show up?”
Knowles and her team began to create, design and implement benefits that corresponded with each of the five pillars of Well Together. Memorial Hermann tossed its old-fashioned tuition program, for example, and created a new benefit that addressed the barriers of its predecessor. “You as an employee don’t have to worry about the money changing hands,” Knowles said. “It just goes directly to the school. And you get money for the books and the fees.”
One focus of Memorial Hermann’s new programming is mental health. Employees can now make appointments to see in-house mental health professionals during the workday. They can also call on staff trained in psychological first-aid to help them through emergent mental health needs they encounter on the job.
‘We are doing much, much, much better.’
Memorial Hermann will continue to look to Well Together as its guiding principles in employee experience for at least five years, Knowles said. In the meantime, Knowles watches its impact spread.
“The feedback from our teams and employees has been really positive,” Knowles said. “They feel supported. They feel cared for as individuals. We are doing much, much, much better.”
She acknowledged the challenge of finding hard evidence that illustrates the impact of Well Together. But Memorial Hermann’s turnover is “down by half from where it was at the top of the pandemic,” Knowles said.
With Well Together continuing to grow, Knowles said her biggest takeaway from its creation is transparency. “It’s scary to go to your workforce and to be vulnerable,” she said. “It’s hard to ask hard questions about how they’re doing and what they need. Because there’s a sense that you may not be able to provide.”
Even so, Knowles said this radical transparency has been “transformational” in allowing her organization to create strategies that answer to the needs of its employees. HR leaders pursuing similar goals should do likewise, she said.
“Press yourself to do things that feel a little bit scary,” she said. “Try things. Don’t be afraid to do a pilot. If it doesn’t work, move on quickly.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect date for the Vivian Health data; the national average weekly pay rate for travel nurses rose to $3,173 in December 2022. It also included an incorrect title for Lori Knowles; she is SVP, CHRO for Memorial Hermann Health System.