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Sun Healthcare Group Optimas Award Winner for Vision

The company tackles its perennial turnover troubles by offering employees the developmental tools they need to advance their careers.

September 7, 2011
Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development
Before Sun Healthcare Group began controlling its employee turnover rate, it was hemorrhaging its staff of nurses, nurse aides and other caregivers. At one company facility in Massachusetts, annual turnover reached 150 percent, says Catherine J. Wisnoski, Sun Healthcare’s vice president of resource development.

    "Health care, certainly long-term care, has faced staffing and retention and satisfaction challenges," Wisnoski says. Long-term medical care for elderly and disabled patients requires hard, often thankless work. From low-skilled aides to highly trained nurse practitioners, these are health care’s burnout jobs. By 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services projects a shortage of 1 million nurses. That shortage does not include the lower-skilled health care workers like nurse aides, who are in high demand to take care of the daily needs of the infirm and elderly.

    The difficulty of the work, combined with increased demand for workers, has led to perennial difficulties retaining staff, Wisnoski says. The costs associated with filling those gaps can be substantial. Sun Healthcare’s 14.3 percent staff vacancy rate translates to $1.5 million annually in additional overtime and contract expenses at its long-term care subsidiary, SunBridge. Workforce shortages also amount to $40 million in lost revenue annually at its other subsidiary, SunDance Rehabilitation.

    To address the costs associated with high job vacancy rates, Sun Healthcare surveyed its employees in 2002 to find out what would make their jobs more satisfying. The results were unambiguous: Employees wanted opportunities to advance their careers.

    "We really needed to find a way to meet the needs of our employees," Wisnoski says.

    In 2003, with the support of CEO Rick Matros and COO Bill Mathies, Sun Healthcare launched its Career Pathways Initiative. The company felt that the best way to retain employees and meet the demands of the growing long-term health care sector would be to give employees the opportunity to develop new skills and grow professionally.

    To help pay for the training, the company turned to funding from federal, state and local workforce training initiatives. Partnering with local community organizations proved to be a valuable resource. Instructors traveled to Sun work sites to teach courses.

    Sun has been awarded $2.2 million in grants on workforce training programs for 1,650 employees in five states. Workers have been trained to become certified nursing assistants and geriatric caregivers. Others have taken courses to improve their English or obtain their GED. "Employees are hungry for the training," says Kay Weiss, Sun’s workforce development manager. "It’s training for people to be more satisfied with their career choice."

    That satisfaction has led to a 20 percent reduction in turnover in the areas where training has been provided, the company says. At its facilities in Massachusetts, turnover has dropped by 26 percent since programs began in 2003.

    Dina Marie LaMarche, a 33-year-old nursing assistant at a SunBridge facility in Lawrence, Massachusetts, says she would still be at the bottom rung of her profession had her employer not given her the opportunity to take classes and improve her skills. LaMarche has completed advanced training as a certified nursing assistant and is studying to become a practical nurse.

    For identifying and developing proactive solutions to a major issue in its industry, Sun Healthcare Group is the winner of 2007 Optimas Award for Vision.

Irvine, California-based Sun Healthcare Group emerged from bankruptcy five years ago and employs 19,483 people. It operates 118 nursing homes, 13 assisted and independent living facilities, seven mental health facilities and three speciality acute care hospitals totaling 15,337 beds. In 2006, total net revenue was $1.05 billion.

Sun operates and staffs nursing homes, assisted living communities, hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Addressing the staffing shortages it knows all too well, the company also operates CareerStaff Unlimited, which provides health professionals temporary, permanent and travel employment in health care.

Workforce Management, March 26, 2007, p. 32 -- Subscribe Now!

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