Six Critical Communication Tips for Creating Healthy Work Environments

Two Nurses Working At StationBrenda’s been a manager on a busy, emergency department for almost two years. Brenda and Elaine, the manager of the ICU, started at the hospital together and even received promotions around the same time. They’ve come to support one another through various ups and downs as bedside nurses and now as managers.

However, over the past six months, the culture of Brenda’s department has changed. Hospital cuts and re-organization have caused her to make some difficult decisions about staffing, equipment, and training. Brenda’s worked really hard over the last year cultivating a professional, respectful, and supportive work environment, yet lately, she’s noticed her employees are resorting back to their old ways where sarcasm, gossip, and the cliques are back.

Elaine went through this same situation about a year ago, and now her unit is running like a well-oiled machine. Brenda asked to meet her for coffee to discuss strategies she adopted that helped her maintain a healthy work environment despite the changes.

Elaine shared that creating a healthy work environment during times of change requires one primary strategy – a laser focus and recommitment to ongoing and consistent communication.

Elaine is right. Creating a healthy work environment is a hot topic for leaders today, and it isn’t just a warm and fuzzy initiative dreamed up by a bunch of right-brained leaders and experts. Cultivating healthy work environments first starts with assessing the culture you have right now. Even if you’ve already established a professional work culture, like Brenda, but things are slipping back to the old ways, it’s time to reassess.

How to assess your department

Whether you’re starting on the path to a healthy work environment or have slipped back, spend some time observing your people.

Are employee expectations and values clear?

Satisfied employees understand their role and have clear expectations while on the job. You must make sure that codes of conduct and professional values aren’t only fancy words written in a policy, but are actions everyone can visibly see when they walk down the hall. Think of your code of conduct as a living, breathing document that should be embedded into the culture of your organization.

Do employees have strong connections with others?

Life isn’t meant to be lived alone. Encourage and acknowledge your employees who participate in outside volunteer work. Plan a volunteer event that your organization supports as a whole and encourage employees to volunteer together. Create a “brag board” in the breakroom to showcase how your team serves the community.

Do employees laugh often?

Have you ever noticed that if you’re uncomfortable in your surroundings, it is physically difficult to laugh? That’s because humor is a sign of comfort. Workplace laughter improves communication and builds a sense of trust among team members. Enjoying one another and sharing jokes and laughter can actually increase creativity and productivity. It’s critical to remember that laughter also reduces stress levels. So, if you know an employee is feeling stressed or needs some helping beating burnout, find ways to increase the amount of laughter filling your hallways.

Do employees share ideas freely?

How many times have you heard managers say they have an ‘open door policy,’ but then hear employee members say the policy backfired? It happens. However, if you want to have an open exchange of ideas, you have to learn how to adopt an ‘open door policy’ and put it into practice. When your employees know they can express their opinions, they feel safe and empowered to address issues on the unit that they feel they can improve. So, if you open the door – be sure it’s really open.

Once you’ve taken inventory and have identified areas for improvement, only then can you identify strategies to improve. You might be thinking that it will take a lot of different methods to move your workplace barometer towards health. However, there is one strategy that’s effective and can help you improve the four issues above – communication.

Understanding the impact of communication on a healthy work environment

Believe it or not, effective communication doesn’t come naturally for most people. It takes time to develop in the same way that nurses develop their clinical skills. Once placed at the foundation of your team, communication can improve the function of your department and increase the quality of the care given to patients, especially during times of change. Even organizations like The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) have recognized the importance of communication to decrease sentinel events in the hospital.

Let’s review a few communication strategies you can use to improve the communication in your team, thereby promoting a healthy work environment.

Spread positivity

Positivity is contagious. Think of a time when you were having a lousy day, but one interaction with someone who had a positive and cheery attitude changed the trajectory of where your emotions were going. For leaders, maintaining a positive outlook, even when faced with difficult decisions, helps employees perceive you as trustworthy and competent. Spread positivity by recognizing, encouraging, and rewarding employees.

Tip – start every meeting with something positive. When you do this, it influences employees to be more positive for a short period of time.

Honesty builds trust

Being honest really is the best policy. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest and let your employees know that you’re not sure, but that you’ll find out. If you can tell that employees are curious about a situation or policy, but won’t bring up the topic in a meeting – bring it up yourself. And, if you tell your team you’ll do something – be sure to follow through. Being honest and keeping your word let’s employees know that you are someone they can count on.

Practice reflection

When communication gets tense, it’s easy to feel that you’re not being heard. If you’re in a conversation with someone, and they state how they’re feeling, listen and then repeat what you heard back to them. This is the practice of reflection. Using reflection gives the person you’re speaking with the chance to correct any misinterpretation and also confirms that what they just said was heard.

Offer Q&A opportunities

Employees have questions. So, to keep the lines of communication open, be sure to create pathways for questions and answers to flow smoothly. You can address inquiries in one-on-one meetings, team meetings, or suggestions boxes. A few other creative ways to get employees to ask their questions is through the use of graffiti walls, bulletin boards, and employee representative panels.

Keep information flowing

Everyone communicates differently. Never assume that all employees read the email you sent or noticed an inter-departmental communication you tacked to the back of the breakroom door. Be sure to deliver information in a few forms so that you know everyone got the memo and processed it in their own way.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, he recommends that leaders need to communicate something seven (7) times before employees will actually hear it. Leaders drop the ball when they think they can communicate something important just once and expect their employees to “get it”.

It’s also critical to choose the best method of delivery based on the information you’re delivering. Telling employees about significant cutbacks or upcoming layoffs in an email doesn’t fit the intensity and importance of your message. This type of information is best delivered verbally, one-on-one or in a small group.

Answer inquiries timely and completely

No one likes to wait for answers when they have a question or concern. Be sure to address inquiries timely and completely. Set expectations up front for how quickly you will respond. A quick email response stating, “Hi Jane! Thanks for your question about the meeting. I need to gather some information before I tell you the answer. I’ll get back to you by the end of business on Tuesday” lets the nurse know you received her question and sets clear expectations for when she can expect an answer.

If you want your department to run smoothly and achieve great success, you need to create a healthy workplace. Communication is the heart of team success and can be done skillfully between leaders and employees.

Elaine shared a few of her communication strategies with Brenda, like posting positive messages and important reminders on the back of the bathroom door! Before long, Brenda was able to redirect her employees back on the path towards a professional, respectful, and supportive work environment. It didn’t happen over night but by consistently communicating with her employees, they are back on track!

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I love hearing from you.  Leave me a comment below to share your experiences with a healthy work environment.

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About Renee Thompson

Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate bullying behavior. To find out how you can bring Renee to YOUR organization or nursing event, visit www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com

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