Mercy Health: Living the Mission through Education of Frontline Coworkers

Providing educational opportunities to frontline co-workers is deeply rooted in the mission of Mercy, headquartered in Chesterfield, Missouri, whether they work in rural areas or the ministry’s largest hospitals. Leaders of Mercy recognize that education allows co-workers to realize their abilities, advance financially, and improve their own sense of dignity. Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, health ministry liaison and a respected leader in the healthcare community, understands that education is inherent to improving the lives and capabilities of ministry co-workers.

“Education ties in to what we are about,” Sister Roch said. “It comes from a Latin word – educare – that means you draw out and lead forth additional knowledge from inside a person, and you teach them how to use that knowledge.”

The desire to include all co-workers when developing its Compensation for Lowest-Paid Co-workers initiatives prompted Mercy to expand Catalyst Learning’s School at Work (SAW) program from St. Louis and Springfield to across the organization. SAW helps frontline co-workers refresh essential skills, such as the basics of reading, writing, math and communication, and gain a better understanding of healthcare-specific subjects during their work hours. It also gives co-workers knowledge and tools to improve job performance and potential for upward mobility.

In addition to SAW, Mercy offers ECHO (Expanding Your Career and Healthcare Opportunities®), which uses a blended-learning model to enhance critical thinking and advanced communications skills. The program prepares students for a degree or certificate program while increasing engagement and motivation.

“SAW and ECHO are natural iterations of our core mission,” said Tanya Marion, regional vice president of human resources for Mercy. “We have co-workers who possess a great deal of talent. The programs allow us to help augment those positive qualities that are natural to them while extending their opportunities at work.”

The emphasis on skills and development programs for frontline co-workers is especially impressive given the range of communities served by Mercy. It is the sixth largest Catholic healthcare system in the U.S. and serves millions of people annually. Mercy includes 32 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, three rehab hospitals and one orthopedic hospital, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,100 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Whether they work in rural areas or the ministry’s largest hospitals, the mission of Mercy is to serve.

“When you think about all the communities where we serve, we range from small towns in rural areas to multi-faceted organizations in larger communities,” Marion said. “Smaller hospitals and communities may not have the opportunities for additional learning because of the geography in which they live. We want to support our co-workers in smaller communities as much as those facilities and cities with larger groups of people.”

“It’s the whole idea of oneness,” said Sister Claudia Ward, RSM, a specialist in Mercy’s Talent Development and Optimization division. “Mercy is one body with many parts. We certainly want to share the wealth of what’s piloted and successful in one area across the ministry.”

While Mercy leaders like Marion and Sister Claudia recognize that programs like SAW and ECHO require an investment by healthcare organizations, reduced turnover and improved succession planning mitigate the financial investments associated with the programs.

“In healthcare, we’re all trying to do more with less,” Marion said. “Sometimes that results in the idea that there’s not enough time or resources to invest in training and education. But it’s because of those constraints that it’s even more important to invest in these programs. We have an opportunity to make a small investment for a huge return. Lower turnover and higher engagement are investments that pay off.”

“Who touches and impacts the patient? It’s our frontline co-workers,” Sister Claudia said. “Who has one of the largest impacts on patient experience? Again, it’s the frontline co-workers. When we invest in these co-workers, we enhance the learning and productivity of the organization.”

Site coaches provide guidance and feedback for program participants. Jan Dieke, clinical education specialist in Mercy’s Talent Development and Optimization division, is a coach for Mercy’s SAW program who sees her role as both educator and “cheerleader.”

“Catalyst Learning gave me the tools to be an effective SAW and ECHO coach,” Dieke said. “A major aspect of the program is providing opportunities and giving encouragement to participants. I call myself a cheerleader because we are there to encourage even the smallest achievements. We see their potential and provide positive feedback and constructive criticism.”

To help share the success gained from educational programs like SAW, Mercy has used a virtual classroom format that allows management or human resource professionals from one facility to support training and development classes at other facilities within the system.

“Technology must work for the virtual classrooms to succeed and that takes getting the right coworkers throughout Mercy working together to coordinate the conference rooms, laptops, webcams, participant guides and other tools for each remotely participating location, in order to facilitate continuity and cohesiveness among all participants,” Dieke said.

As a result of Mercy’s emphasis on training and education for its frontline co-workers, the success and achievements of program participants have benefited those co-workers personally and professionally while also enhancing patient services across the ministry. Education and talent specialists like Dieke and Sister Claudia agree that co-workers gain new confidence in their positions, have a newfound and positive outlook, and become open to other job opportunities within the ministry. Sister Claudia cited a recent survey of SAW graduates and found that 86 percent reported an increase in confidence, which she said can only be a positive boost to patient services as well.

“SAW incorporates patient and customer service modules,” Sister Claudia said. “That allows us to talk about service – to talk about Mercy’s values and the expectations of our patients and co-workers.”

“It’s an extension of our overall mission at Mercy,” Marion added. “We take care of those in our care and those who help provide that care. We are a very large employer in many of the communities in which we serve, and this gives us an opportunity to give career paths for many of our fellow co-workers.”

Sister Roch said, “There’s a joy and pride you have in the women and men who go through the program. It’s a journey for them and opportunity for them to advance. It’s also an investment where you hope there’s a return for them personally, and if they stay with the ministry you hope they can grow along their journey.”

That growth has been seen in ministry co-workers like Rachel Blankenship, now a charge nurse with further ambitions to advance her career. Eight years ago, Blankenship began her career at Mercy in the Environmental Services Department. The SAW program gave her not only professional skills, but also the confidence to move forward with a new career. While most SAW students have a high school diploma, Rachel did not; after SAW, she went on to acquire her GED and started pre-requisites for nursing school. Blankenship was accepted into nursing school after she completed her pre-requisites and became an RN in 2011.

Debra Gouse is a graduate of the first SAW class at Mercy St. Louis in 2004. After completing the program, Debra completed college and went on to get her master’s degree in business administration.

Debra is the first to get a college degree in her family. Vergie Cooper, an environmental services tech, has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is now planning to begin work on her master’s degree.

Alan Chapman, human resources manager at Mercy, cites Blankenship, Gouse and Cooper as several of the many success stories that have resulted from the SAW program.

“It’s the spark in the students – that’s where success starts,” Chapman said. “But you have to show them a path or make them aware of other opportunities. When they’re in class, they might be exposed to a job they weren’t aware of or we might set up a scenario for shadowing or learning more about a position. We want them to be self-directed and motivated but you have to help plant that seed and encourage it to grow.”

The growth of SAW graduates like Blankenship, Gouse and Cooper has helped Mercy HospitalSpringfield reduce turnover in traditionally high areas such as housekeeping, while also increasing the overall tenure of frontline co-workers. Marion said the program has increased levels of engagement and provided Mercy more opportunities to promote from within.

“We have the experience of working with these participants so they are a known quantity,” she said. “These are people who are doing great things, and we are moving them into other positions.”

Sister Roch summed the impact of Mercy’s longtime partnership with Catalyst Learning by how the educational programs have supported the ministry’s mission for 10 years.

“Catalyst Learning is investing in women and men who serve because of their great respect for them and their dignity,” she said. “We started our partnership with Catalyst Learning when there was a deep concern for how Mercy could invest money into bettering the lives of our co-workers. We only accomplish our mission by investing in our people.”

Additional successes achieved by Mercy’s SAW students:
• Ernest Blackburn: Advanced from environmental services tech 1 to supervisor of environmental services.
• Sakiba Delic: Transitioned from financial counselor to human resources recruiter.
• Silvia Miranda: Advanced from interpreter to lead interpreter.

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