For most people over 25% of their life is spent at work, and that’s if you only work 40 hours a week. For EMS personnel who work three jobs just to pay for life’s expenses, it becomes an even higher percentage of our lives. So how can we help make staff feel happy about spending 25% of their lives at work? Well, there isn’t just one answer, but a major component is when they have to spend that 25% at work and how they enjoy the other 75% of the time they’re not at work. A schedule can make or break employee morale and satisfaction, and that’s regardless of whether the agency is paid or volunteer. If employees feel forced into a schedule that doesn’t work for their life, accommodates their family or allows them to enjoy things outside of work, then your staff will start to regret being at work. So how can you achieve balance between the needs of the organization and the needs of the employee?
Start with the basics—promote and provide various schedule opportunities. Every EMS agency has different operational needs, so take advantage of those peak performance times and make various schedules that create opportunities for employees. Most EMS providers didn’t get into the industry thinking this job would provide a Monday–Friday, 9–5 schedule, but they also didn’t plan on working every weekend and overnight shift either. Since different staff members have different needs for balancing life, work and school, create scheduling opportunities that allow staff to feel like they don’t have to make sacrifices in one area of their lives or another. Twelve-hour shifts are great for staff members who want the opportunity to have four days off each week, but eight hour shifts might make it possible for another provider to go to school before or after coming to work each day. Try to avoid having just one shift duration for the entire agency as it can reduce staffing opportunities and increase employee stress. Keeping in mind operational needs, solicit staff feedback to best determine how you can make schedules that also satisfy personal needs.
Once you’ve determined what the schedule should look like, you need to focus on the staff. A key component to happy staff members is to provide them with communication and true transparency. It doesn’t matter if you run a rural volunteer agency with 10 dedicated providers or a busy urban system with 500 providers, communication is key and that means no more paper schedules. With so many options for scheduling software, start offering constant communication and transparency by bringing your schedule online. Even if you feel you don’t have the budget, start with the basics and do it for free using a Google calendar. This simple step helps everyone feel like part of the process and it has the benefit of updating in real time. And if you have the budget for a bigger system, there are plenty of software programs that cater to the EMS industry. These software platforms can pay for themselves by reducing scheduling headaches, reducing overtime and allowing staff to access their schedule from anywhere. With more than half of our workforce carrying their own smartphone these days, employees expect a degree of access— why not make them happy and provide it to them?
Next we all need to look at expectations. Are scheduling expectations at your agency clearly defined? Are they in writing or only in the manager’s head? Do they only go in one direction? Set expectations, but make sure they’re mutual expectations! Start off by putting expectations in writing and sharing them with everyone in your agency. If you have a set date each month that availability is due, set that expectation and share it with your team. But don’t just stop there. If you have an expectation for your staff if should apply equally to management as well. Determine a set date or time frame you’ll have the schedule completed by and share that expectation with the staff. Take a team approach and have everyone understand in order for both sides to meet their expectations everyone has to do their part. Not only does this show teamwork, it allows staff to better plan ahead for the times they're not at the work. EMS work schedules can be hard enough to plan around, so being able to expect your schedule for next month by a certain date will allow your staff to plan their time outside of work and make them happy.
When you gauge employee satisfaction, evaluate how often system operations meet everyone’s expectations. Staff members should be able to expect to get out of work on time, and when they don’t it can be very frustrating. Although EMS is an operation that can’t guarantee we’ll get done on time every day, we can set the expectation to manage how often it occurs. Schedulers can have a significant impact on how often a crew is held late. When is the last time you ran a report that showed you in a given week how many times each unit was held late? If we monitor operational workload we can watch what shifts are consistently held over. When you see a unit consistently held late, take initiative to determine why that unit is held late so often and what changes can be put in place to help reduce it. Some things can be easy fixes, such as considering staggered shift start and end times. Rather than putting four units in service at 7 a.m., put one unit in service every 30 minutes beginning at 6 a.m. This gives dispatchers added flexibility and reduces how often a unit is held late by providing dispatchers with the option to select a crew that still has a longer period of time left in its shift.
A good schedule can make all the difference in allowing a staff member to have a good balance of life and work, and balance makes for happy employees. When we look at balance, consider several things to create a positive outcome both for staff and operations. If you need staff on weekends, set parameters in writing and consider feedback and alternatives from staff members. If staff currently have to work one weekend a month, consider offering an alternative of two Sundays—or Saturdays—a month rather than one full weekend. If staff have to work five days each week and that includes weekends (in a rotation), then work to ensure their days off are consecutive—even if in the middle of the week.
Also, don’t drag out approving paid time off (PTO). Time off is critical to a healthy work-life balance and your employees earned that time. Think about how hard it can be to try to plan a trip and then add in the stress of not knowing if you will get the time off of work. Reduce that stress for staff and let them know what the mutual expectation is for them to hear back about PTO requests. They can’t always expect a PTO request will be turned around and approved in 24 hours; conversely, it’s never OK for a manager to wait two months to approve or deny a request.
If your system has busy units (with high UHU) and slower units (with low UHU), consider doing two week or monthly rotations from a busy unit to a slower unit so staff can get a little down time on a slower unit. Take advantage of the opportunity to provide a staff member with a break on a lower UHU unit as a thank you for the time they put in on a busier unit.
Survey Your Staff
Overall, we need to be flexible and open to new ideas. We may think we know the best solutions for the schedule but the staff actually has to work within it every day, so listen to their feedback and don’t be afraid to try something new. One way to generate great feedback and get employee engagement is to send out a staff survey. The survey will allow you to see what your team thinks of the schedule, the scheduling process, what you’re doing well and what they feel can be done better. That feedback can be a tremendous asset to determine if you are meeting the staff expectations. A simple change, such as the hour of shift change for a 24-hour unit, may make no difference in operations but can be the difference in a parent getting to see their children before they leave for school in the morning. If you have the opportunity to build family, meet operational demands and increase employee satisfaction because providers can see you’re listening to them, why wouldn’t you want to make that happen?
So, don’t be afraid to think outside the box, listen to your team, set mutual expectations and try new things. Together you can meet operational goals with a team of happy staff members.