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How to create a culture of respect in the healthcare workplace

For the past 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with healthcare organizations to transform culture, patient experience, and employee and physician engagement. My work has given me the opportunity to speak with many people across the healthcare industry about the role of respect in the workplace—and how respect impacts workforce engagement and employee retention in healthcare.

Why is respect important in healthcare? What I’ve learned through these conversations is that a culture of respect doesn’t just play a paramount role in engagement and employee retention in healthcare: It’s intrinsically linked to creating an inclusive workplace. When employees feel like a respected team member, that they’re valued, and that they’re treated fairly, they’re more likely to be engaged in their work, motivated to excel and grow, and committed to doing their best.

Healthcare employees must aim higher than surface-level “politeness” when building a culture of respect

I often think of respect in levels. At the lowest level is deep disregard or disrespect for another individual or group of people—with violence against nurses and workplace bullying occurring more frequently, many organizations are at this level to some degree. At the middle level, it’s just manners and superficial politeness—saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” but without a genuine effort to individualize the interaction.

While good manners and being polite are a giant step above blatant disrespect or disregard, we in the healthcare industry should aim even higher, to form authentic connections with the people with whom we work—and with the people for whom we care. The highest level of respect involves genuine connections, and gestures that show you care about the other person. For example, if I were to walk into the office and greet my team as a whole, that’s fine. It’s not rude or dismissive. But if I walk in and greet people by name, recognizing that each person on the team is an individual who brings different strengths and qualities to the table, I’m showing them a higher level of respect and appreciation—and making a true connection.

Making authentic connections has a ripple effect. Organizations that foster a culture of respect in healthcare often have a more engaged and satisfied workforce.

6 positive effects of respect in healthcare workplace

  1. Employee engagement. Press Ganey’s employee and physician annual surveys capture the voices of more than 1.52M healthcare employees and nearly 116,000 physicians. In our 2023 database, we continued to see a downward trend in engagement for both employees and physicians. These results are cause for concern. Given the demands of the healthcare industry, organizations need their employees to have pride in the organization, as well as want to remain employed, and feel confident about referring friends and family there for care or for employment. When employees feel respected and valued, they’re more engaged in and satisfied with their work. Employees feel better about waking up each day and going to a job where they know they’re appreciated as a respected team member.
  2. Employee retention in healthcare. What motivates employees to stay at an organization? This is a top-of-mind question for many organization leaders, as many healthcare employees are reconsidering their career paths. Employees want to be heard by leadership and involved in problem-solving. When they are, they feel more connected to their work. Demonstrating respect in healthcare involves recognizing each employee’s individual contributions and successes to instill a sense of pride and satisfaction in their jobs and can, in turn, improve employee retention in healthcare.
  3. Staff loyalty. While retention is about staying with an organization, loyalty is about how connected your employees feel to the organization. When employees feel respected, they become more deeply committed to the organization’s mission, values, and vision. They become “brand ambassadors” for the organization and proudly promote their employer by name.
  4. Staff productivity. Organizations with high levels of employee engagement often report increased productivity. When employees feel valued, loyal, and engaged, they feel like they have ownership in the organization—and they want to go the extra mile to ensure the organization is successful.
  5. Psychological safety. Every organization needs to create a culture where people feel comfortable expressing their ideas, concerns, and suggestions without fear of negative consequences. Psychological safety is incredibly important in the healthcare industry—decisions on whether to speak up can have life or death consequences. For example, if a nurse is fearful of questioning a physician about a medication decision or a procedure that doesn’t seem necessary, it could result in an adverse safety event. A culture of respect is one where employees feel they can speak freely—and this translates to process improvements, healthcare innovation, and effective communication.
  6. Inclusion and belonging. In a respectful culture, employees feel that they belong and can bring their whole selves to work. Employees should never feel as if they have to code switch—i.e., adjust their speech, behavior, or appearance to appease another group of people—at work. They should be able to come as they are, and be celebrated for that.

Fostering a culture of respect in healthcare

National employee data (Figure 1) suggests that nurses, security personnel, and licensed technical roles often feel the least respected by their organization. Reciprocal respect, which is correlated with survey items “The person I report to treats me with respect” and “I respect the abilities of the person to whom I report,” varies among different roles. Physicians and advanced practice providers report higher levels of reciprocal respect, while nursing, licensed technical roles, and service positions have lower scores.

Figure 1

Organizational respect by job category

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to foster a culture of respect within our teams. Reconnecting to the basics—communication, teamwork, and psychological safety—is often the answer when it comes to prioritizing respect in healthcare.

Using tools like Press Ganey’s crowdsourcing technology, can also help foster a culture of respect. ECU Health, a not-for-profit hospital system serving more than 1.4 million people in eastern North Carolina, uses crowdsourcing to gauge team members’ thoughts and opinions on various topics related to the workplace. In one instance, ECU leadership created a crowdsourcing “challenge” on respect. Team members were asked open-ended questions and prompts, like:

  • What does respect mean to you?
  • Name one thing we should stop doing.
  • What suggestions do you have to create a culture of respect in the organization? Name one thing we should start doing.

Team members voted for their favorite crowdsourced ideas. The campaign revealed common themes that employees care about, such as work-life balance, acknowledgment, collaboration and teamwork, appreciation and recognition, and support.

As a result, ECU Health was able to demonstrate how much they value their workforce and team members’ opinions, and show they’re really listening.

At Press Ganey, we’re dedicated to the healthcare workforce. We help organizations all over the country improve the employee experience and engagement.  To learn more about how we can help you foster a culture of respect and inclusion, and achieve your goals, reach out to one of our employee experience experts.

About the author

Cassandra (Casey) is responsible for advising our clients on employee engagement, culture-building, and best practices for achieving diverse and inclusive work environments. She also leads development of workforce engagement and equity strategies to help healthcare organizations measure and improve the caregiver experience. She is co-leader of Press Ganey’s Equity Partnership. Casey’s more than 25 years of experience in healthcare inform her expertise in culture, quality care, patient experience, employee and provider engagement, profitable growth, and value optimization leveraging executive coaching and lean management improvement approaches.

Profile Photo of Cassandra Willis-Abner