The reality is that changing work cultures is really, really hard.

By Steve Moran

A few days ago I attended the quarterly Abe’s Garden Board Meeting, (a newly opened “center of excellence” memory care community in Nashville, TN). The community has been open just a few months and IS approaching 100% occupancy. The limiting factor has been the challenge of finding and training the right staff.   

They have adapted the ultra high touch Hearthstone approach to memory care programing. This approach requires . . . no, that is not quite right . . .  provides, care staff the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities with residents.  

Brenda Ngey, the head of life engagement, and Andrew Sandler, the Executive Director, talked about how the process is going and lessons learned. Brenda noted that a significant number of “care partners” (front-line staff) are really struggling with the idea that they need to, and can, lead some of the life enrichment activities. I confess I would have thought they would have jumped at this . . . embraced it, been deliriously excited about the opportunity.

The Puzzle

So here is the puzzle . . . and the shame. The idea that they are being asked to do something meaningful is so foreign to them that for many/most, it is a real struggle to step up to the challenge. They are so used to being treated as a disposable, interchangeable team member employees, they cannot get their arms around the idea that they have this opportunity to do something meaningful and creative.  

They are so used to the old way that they don’t even know how to have fun at work. They don’t want to have a meaningful experience. What is most comfortable is going to work, having a checklist of tasks, ticking off each of those tasks and going home at the end of their shift.  

Abe’s Garden is not the only senior living company creating this kind of paradigm shift and struggling with team members believing and embracing the idea that they can do seriously meaningful, creative work. Lori Alford at Avanti Senior Living has described similar challenges and they seek to create a purposeful work environment for front-line employees.   

A Terrible Indictment

I am no bleeding heart liberal. I completely believe in the capitalistic system, but somehow in our North American system of ranking, the value of employees has broken down. We have convinced those individuals who do the hardest, most vital, difficult work . . . those jobs that pay very little and provide little job satisfaction . . . that they are replaceable interchangeable, disposable, moving parts in a big machine. This is not exclusively a senior living problem. In truth we are doing a somewhat better job of this than, say, hotels and fast food joints.

This is not good.

This is our opportunity.

For a Writer or a Consultant or a Pundit . . .

It is really easy to say, “you should do this” or “you should do that” . . . but the reality is that changing work cultures is really, really hard. It takes deliberate long-term effort. It takes serious relentlessness. It takes having a vision for how it can be, what it should look like. I worry that sometimes I and other writers treat this culture change thing as something that is easy to do when it is not.

The Big Idea

We have this really unique opportunity to change the paradigm for the nation. We have the ability to say . . . at least in this industry, that it does not have to be this way. That our line staff are not disposable employees. They have great value. They can change lives in profoundly meaningful ways.

It will never be easy.