When the Great Recession began early in 2008, both for-profit and not-for-profit companies struggled to react to the uncertainties of a prolonged economic challenge. A common response was entrenchment through reducing salaries, benefits, and positions.
And this approach seemed to make sense. After all, for most companies, payrolls represent one of the largest, if not the largest, cost centers. Additionally, people—unlike most other assets—can be relatively flexible, and when asked to work longer for less, are generally grateful during hard times to be employed.
These short-term strategies remind one of Mark Twain’s essay, “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” in which Twain initially is captured by the beauty of the Mississippi. He recalls the water’s “surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal,” only to be later disillusioned by experience that the same scene actually showed the dangers of a dissolving sand bar and a changing channel.
Voluntary overtime, reduced benefits, and the emotional toll regarding job security, of course, affect many aspects of staff performance. Employees’ concerns for their welfare are even more acute in economically depressed areas, such as in rural upstate, New York, the home of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers.
St. Joseph’s Takes a Different Road
St. Joseph’s, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary of substance abuse treatment, employs 139 addiction clinicians, administrators, and other support staff, and generates approximately $15 million in economic impact to New York’s Franklin and Essex Counties, areas that endure historically high unemployment.
Despite the agency’s prominence in the community, St. Joseph’s was subject to the same budgetary concerns at the beginning of the financial slowdown affecting businesses throughout the region.
“The challenge was not to look at our employees as a variable expense, one that could be lowered in the same manner one reduces heat to save on expenses, but rather view them as our greatest asset,” says St. Joseph Chief Talent Management Officer Katie Kirkpatrick, whose title was advanced from that of Director of Human Resources to Chief Talent Officer to reflect the agency’s appreciation of its staff as being its greatest resource. “We took the approach that the best way to ensure the highest quality of care for the people who come to us for treatment was to demonstrate the greatest care for the people who work for us.”
Accordingly, Kirkpatrick, St. Joseph’s CEO Robert Ross, and others of the agency’s executive team determined a comprehensive strategy to increase investment in employees, an approach perhaps counterintuitive given the economy’s constraints.
The first element of the approach was to share the annual budget with all employees, even those who worked the night shift. “There was a definite appreciation, a sincere feeling of inclusion, on the part of our late shift workers to have our CFO share the agency’s budget with them at 11:30 at night. That’s when you tell your staff they’re really important, because they are,” notes Ross.
Key and reassuring points of the budget included the pledge that no positions would be lost, the Centers’ robust health plan would remain unchanged, and salary increases would match at least the rate of inflation.
In addition, and central to the agency’s mission of promoting wellness, a fitness center was established with 24-hour access for employees throughout the organization.
The product of this strategy included many subjective outcomes, such as a greater quality of communication throughout the agency, an enhanced sense of employee worth, and less anxiety regarding potential layoffs.
What is more measurable, however, is that among other positive metrics, Inpatient admissions rose to 97 percent for the year. Also during the period, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), the regulatory agency responsible for certifying the State’s addiction treatment facilities, recognized St. Joseph’s as scoring in the top 3 percent of all agencies reviewed. And a recent outcome study revealed that six months after completing the program, a remarkable 93 percent of the men and women who came to St. Joseph’s for treatment maintained sobriety, avoided recidivism, and made significant progress with employment.
These meaningful results indicate that both efficiency and morale can be enhanced by investing more in one’s workforce during difficult times. These outcomes also set the foundation for the next element of the strategy to invest in employees: the creation of the agency’s Talent Management Institute (TMI).
Talent Management Institute
St. Joseph’s TMI, one of the first in the state, involves a nine-month program to help employees explore their individual potential and build on their strengths. “We’ve created three tracks: professional, management, and executive,” explains Kirkpatrick. “Each curriculum focuses on different aspects of teambuilding skills: one to prepare staff for greater responsibility, another to empower management, and the third to stimulate strategic thinking.” Common to all tracks is core instruction in public speaking, time management, ethics, professionalism, and effective written communications. Required reading ranges from managerial texts to Spencer Johnson’s “Who Moved My Cheese.”
The program was made available to all employees and required a written essay and recommendation by the applicant’s supervisor. Not surprisingly, the inaugural class of 12 openings was oversubscribed.
“The skills learned in our TMI both augment an already-high level of staff competency, and prepare future leaders for internal succession,” explains Kirkpatrick. “Additionally, if a graduate realizes an opportunity with another employer, the great majority of the skills learned in the TMI are transportable and make the employee yet more marketable.”
Work-life balance, a feeling of security, empowerment, and knowing you have a voice in your organization are outcomes that have evolved naturally from St. Joseph’s strategy of purposefully investing in employees during the recession and are qualities that undoubtedly contributed to the agency being designated, for the second time, as One of the Best Companies to Work for in New York State.
St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers is a not-for-profit corporation headquartered in New York’s Adirondack Region that provides inpatient and outpatient alcoholism, substance abuse, and gambling addiction services for residents of New York and surrounding states. For more information, visit www.stjoestreatment.org.