Empower and Retain Your Front-line Workers

Engaged and empowered employees are the keystone to the success of your organization. Yet, a repeated theme I hear from MHS ministries across the country is you don’t have enough of them. This is particularly true of the front-line worker, the very employees who bring your ministries to life. New employees don’t show up for the first day of work or quit within a matter of days. MHS organizations have raised pay, provided bonuses, and improved benefits and these have made a difference, but frequently the employment gaps remain. Those who are working are carrying a heavier load and are more likely to become disengaged or quit. What used to work isn’t working in the same way anymore. We need new strategies. After all, one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Initially, COVID seemed to be the culprit. The focus was on pushing through and getting to the other side. Data from Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the number of workers employed by senior care continues to be significantly below pre-pandemic levels with a 10.5% drop. Among intensive outpatient, hospital, and residential-based behavioral health establishments there has been a 5.9% drop in the labor force made more dramatic by increased demand for behavioral health services.

While COVID seems to have accelerated the employment gap, it is not the primary driver. There are fewer workers and it is unlikely these trends are going to correct in the near future. As of late 2021, 50.3% of U.S. adults 55 and older said they had retired from the workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. As a generation, the baby boomers are the second largest group following the millennials. Population growth has been declining for decades primarily due to decreases in immigration and fewer babies being born. 1.2 million Americans are incarcerated. Between 9% and 26% of the decline in workforce participation among people aged 25 to 34, is probably due to a rise in substance dependency.

With a declining number of people available to work, it’s imperative we find a way to attract, retain and develop the front-line worker. One key strategy outlined by Ruth Weirich in her book, Workplace Stability is to create conditions that lead to retention, productivity, and engagement in entry-level workers. The premise of the book is the daily challenges faced by those in daily instability are unknown to those who live in daily stability. The author defines daily instability as the extent to which one does without resources ranging from the financial to relationships and role models to the knowledge of hidden rules, and more. The book seeks to help employers better understand low-wage employees as a pathway to improving stability. If organizations can help to stabilize employees, they can stabilize their businesses. It is important to note that a large part of providing this stability is learning about the hidden rules and mores of those living in different socio-economic groups. Workplace culture is built upon middle-class mores and this creates a disconnect for those coming from poverty, a disconnect that can make the first few days at a new job insurmountable. If we want to attract and retain employees who are living in poverty we need to move from a stance of frustration and judgment to a proactive one of understanding, valuing, and empowering. Ruth Weirich lays out three strategies with a track record of significantly improving retention:

  1. Create an accepting corporate culture: identify and address the disconnect between the culture of your organization and the unstable environment of poverty
  2. Train new and existing employees on economic class diversity: create awareness and a shared vocabulary to address issues as they arise
  3. Develop a network of support for employees moving from daily instability to daily stability

Ruth’s work is based upon Ruby Payne’s Bridges out of Poverty, a source I found to be immensely helpful in shifting my paradigms and increasing my respect for the specific skills and differences of those living in poverty. This in turn made me better equipped to understand and empower them to live into and further develop their strengths. As a network of Anabaptist ministries, this is part of our missions both for those we serve and for our employees.

You have an opportunity to learn more. Ruth Weirich is presenting both a keynote address and a pre-conference workshop at Mennonite Health Assembly 2023. An additional workshop, Retaining Entry-level Employees will delve into what this has looked like in MHS member organizations. I hope you can attend!

Objectives can lead to growth in any person, team, or organization. Use them to challenge yourself and become more of whom God created you to be. Take the time to celebrate what you learn and how you grow both professionally and personally. The paths you take can lead to having a greater impact than you previously imagined. What objectives do you have planned for 2023? Leave a comment and let us know!

Clare Krabill


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