Hold the pepperoni; staff are craving something more satisfying than pizza

Several weeks ago during an NBC Nightly News story on nursing burnout, I heard a tired, dedicated nurse from Little Rock voice in frustration, “… and please don’t order us any more pizza.”

In a face-to-face conversation with a health care worker a few weeks ago, I heard a similar sentiment: “If one more person tries to hand me a piece of candy, I’m going to throw it back in their face.”

How to best recognize staff is an issue that I’ve seen leaders grappling with since the beginning of my career. I’ve seen it all, from complicated points-and-prizes systems to “thank you” candy bars with the hospital’s logo.

In the past, organization’s efforts to recognize and reward staff with clever prizes and treats were usually ineffective and unsustainable. In today’ environment, the staff I’m talking to see them as tone-deaf and offensive.

If leaders want to gain insights into how to best recognize staff’s extraordinary efforts, they should start with the questions from research-based employee engagement surveys. Those questions are all about listening, giving employees a voice in decisions, professional development, and individualizing support. (I’ve never seen a question about delivering enough free pizza.)

Following are several key lessons we’ve learned from our in-the-trenches work with dedicated frontline staff and the hard-working, well-intentioned managers who want to support them.

Fast-food, trinkets and treats cheapen expressions of gratitude

Though it is usually not the case, staff perceive offers of inexpensive food or treats as an indication that leaders don’t really understand the problem. The toll the pandemic has taken on frontline caregivers seems to have underlined that perception.

So, should we never feed staff again? Hardly. But breaking bread together should mark a key event, holiday, or other celebration. I’ve also seen an unexpected delivery of food appreciated when it helps ease the burden of a specific situation. For instance, the Emergency Department is slammed, and staff can’t get away for a break or dinner.

But be careful. If staff consistently can’t get away for a break or dinner, they can see delivery of food as a lack of resolve to solving the underlying problem.

You can’t fix all the problems overnight, but you can listen to better understand

As a young manager, I was always troubled that I couldn’t fix all the staff’s troubles. What I eventually learned was that while solving problems is important, what the team really wanted was assurance that I understood their issues. Further, the most dedicated staff wanted to be involved in finding fixes that would benefit the entire team.

Mass expressions of gratitude only go so far

A few years ago, I was working with a team focused on how to best recognize staff. They implemented what I thought was a best practices during their daily huddle. Staff heard, “You guys are amazing … thank you for what you do … we love you!” every day.

Then one day a hard-working, long-term, beloved employee pulled me aside and quietly said, “You know, it’s nice that they tell us we’re great every day in that big meeting. But what I really appreciate is someone looking me in the eye and telling me that they noticed what I did for an individual patient. Then simply saying ‘thank you.’”

There is no quick-and-easy short-cut to staff engagement

We often think of improving staff engagement as an organization-wide, or at least team-wide, undertaking. In reality, better staff engagement happens one employee at a time.

Understandably, many frontline leaders today struggle with how they can possibly give any more. They are physically and emotionally exhausted. But what we’ve seen in great, highly engaged teams is that staff empathize with their manager’s dilemma. The hard-working manager’s expression of sincere gratitude is so often returned by compassionate staff. They understand and value the role great leadership plays in the team’s individual and collective success.