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Hospitals have a key asset for environmental programs: Younger workers


As health systems look to improve their sustainability, they can find allies in younger staff. Hospitals can also retain workers they don’t want to lose.

Many hospitals have said they know they need to reduce their harmful environmental impact, and some are taking steps to do better.

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Hospitals are tapping young workers for their sustainability programs.

Dozens of health systems representing hundreds of hospitals have pledged to meet the Biden administration’s targets of reducing emissions. Federal officials are placing more pressure on health systems to reduce waste and pollutants.

Some healthcare leaders say hospitals can find some vital help in their sustainability programs from the younger employees in their organizations.

More hospitals are turning to their young staff members for their environmental efforts, said Jonathan Perlin, president and CEO of The Joint Commission.

In a recent interview, Perlin said younger workers played a key role in pushing The Joint Commission to launch a new program certifying hospital sustainability programs. He noted with a laugh that the commission typically doesn’t get requests for new certification programs.

“Younger workers, and particularly clinical workers, are asking for standards in two areas: health equity and environmental sustainability,” Perlin said.

Environmental programs draw interest in “young clinicians of all stripes, nurses, pharmacists,” Perlin said. They see the impact of climate change, he said.

“It's really quite striking how motivated and assertive our younger colleagues are in terms of asking for more support in this regard,” he said.

The hospital industry offers plenty of opportunities for improvement when it comes to environmental impact. Federal officials say the U.S. healthcare industry produces 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions.

Each day, a hospital produces a ton of waste per every 100 beds, Perlin said. Hospitals generate a great deal of waste in part because they use and discard many items after only being used once.

Hospitals are turning to young people to engage in sustainability programs to engage workers in a cause that’s important to them, says Kara Brooks, senior associate director of sustainability for the American Society for Health Care Engineering.

Health systems are also seeing it as a useful tool in their efforts to keep workers.

“I keep hearing about how they're using this for employee engagement, employee retention,” Brooks told Chief Healthcare Executive®. “The workforce is very, very interested in this topic. They're seeing it when they're out and about in their communities. And, you know, they want to make sure they're working for an employer who supports that.”

More hospitals are forming “green teams” to tackle environmental efforts.

“That's a way to really get those employees involved and empower them to take control of what they can do,” Brooks says. “It has been a really big issue for workforce retention and engagement.”

Many health systems continue to see high turnover in their organizations, and Perlin said environmental initiatives could help hospitals keep workers they don’t want to lose.

“If you think about the sort of disenfranchisement that's been palpable throughout healthcare that's been associated with attrition, and you get to a root cause,” Perlin said. “It's really a feeling of not being able to make a difference. And so if young people have identified an issue that they want to address, inviting them in to be part of the solution engages them in a durable way, which ties directly to reduction of turnover. So it is a secret weapon and force multiplier in addressing sustainability.”

Most clinicians say hospitals should be engaged on climate change and feel it should be part of their organization’s mission, according to a report from the Commonwealth Fund released in January. About 6 in 10 (62%) said a potential employer’s climate change policies would play a role in their decision to pursue a job with the organization.

Perlin noted that millennials, including his own children, are passionate about the environment.

“They're worried about not only their quality of life, but even about succeeding generations, whether they have kids based on the impact of potential environmental catastrophe,” Perlin said. “For healthcare organizations to be able to make a proactive statement that they're doing something is absolutely linked to their ability to recruit.”

This month, Chief Healthcare Executive® is presenting stories on sustainability in hospitals, leading up to Earth Day. Feel free to share ideas or success stories. Email: [email protected].

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