Catholic health care associates tap into joy of serving others

February 1, 2020


Erica Johnson says patients, visitors and staff tell her that joy is palpable at the four Hospital Sisters Health System hospitals she works with in her role as communications manager for HSHS's Central Illinois division. "People say you can feel it when you walk the halls and when you interact with our team members — you can feel that joy and that extra touch of care."

Surgical technician Makita Johnson-Hunt, left, and supervisor Becky Patterson of Ascension St. Vincent's Riverside in Jacksonville, Florida, join in a hospital celebration of a new caregiver experience model. That model in part is aimed at rejuvenating colleagues. That aim ties in with Ascension's value to "Dedication: Affirming the hope and joy of our ministry."

HSHS is among several Catholic health systems and facilities that have joy as a core value.

Ministry staff demonstrate joy in many ways that lighten the load and lift the spirit of others. Staff organize community food drives and sponsor needy families. They host department celebrations of quirky holidays like National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day. They perform acts of kindness and build human connections — a nurse who sits and talks with a lonely patient and a genial cafeteria employee spread joy.

Amanda Peabody, nursing educator at HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois, serves herself a complimentary slice of cheesecake on National Cheesecake Day in July. This is one of the many events that St. John's puts on for its colleagues in line with Hospital Sisters Health System's joy value.

Whatever way it is shown, the joy these associates are acting upon "is not superficial," says Sr. Joan Marie Stelman, OSB, mission integration leader at Essentia Health. "We find that what we do in health care is a calling and there is a deep satisfaction and peace that comes from helping others — and whatever we do to express that, we can see that the sense of joy can carry us all through some of the hard days" in health care.

Spreading joy
To make associates mindful of how intention and attention to joy and other values improve patient care and workplace culture, Springfield, Illinois-based HSHS; Duluth, Minnesota-based Essentia; St. Louis-based Ascension and Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System have extensive onboarding, formation and mission education activities that include reflections on values.

Steven Gee, director of food and nutrition at HSHS St. John's Hospital of Springfield, Illinois, and hospital board member Megan DeFrain display diapers and wipes collected at the Springfield Sam's Club during the hospital's diaper drive. The donations signal community support and joy for families taking newborns home from the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Ascension introduces job candidates to its system values during the recruitment and interviewing phase, when hiring managers are assessing whether applicants are a good fit for the organization. For instance, interviewers might ask, "Where do you find joy in your work or vocation as a nurse?"

Ascension supervisors continue to weave opportunities for new employees to reflect on Ascension's "essential behaviors," including practicing self-awareness, communicating transparently to "speak the truth in love" and proactively engaging fully with others.

During performance reviews, Ascension supervisors explore with their direct reports how they live out the system's values in their jobs, including the one related to joy.


Joy in service to others
FMOLHS's orientation includes role-playing of ways that joy and other values can be lived out. One FMOLHS facility invites associates to jot down ways they live out system values on Post-it notes that they affix to message boards in their departments.

Brian Blasco is communications director and archivist for the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, the legacy sponsor of HSHS. He says as part of the formation process, many staff and clinicians at all HSHS organizations have the opportunity to visit a spirituality center on the grounds of the sisters' motherhouse to learn from him, the sisters and others how the system's mission and values are lived out.


He relates anecdotes about the lives of sisters to demonstrate that joy is not about happiness alone — when inner peace manifests through service to others, those acts are expressions of joy. "We bring Christ's healing presence, and we do this through the values. We're continuing a story that began with Jesus and it's up to us to express this goodness and joy and sense of peace."

Similarly, says Pete Guarisco Jr., senior vice president of mission for FMOLHS, that system's associates learn that the kind of joy that the health system prizes is that which is lived out in connection with others, and also in relationship with God.


Timothy Glover, Ascension's senior vice president of mission integration, adds, "As we participate in the loving ministry of Jesus as healer we do so joyfully and imitate Jesus' joy. Such joy does not deny challenges, obstacles or suffering. Rather, joy serves as a resource to us in such times."

Rooted in joy
Essentia, Ascension, HSHS and FMOLHS all made joy a formal value based on the input of leaders and associates.

Glover says at Ascension, "determining how to express the values we share was a highly collaborative process. Associates from across our ministry put into words the beliefs and lived experiences that mattered deeply to them.

"From their words, in the stories they shared, came the language of the six values that continue to guide our ministry, including the value of 'Dedication — affirming the hope and joy of our ministry.'"

Sr. Stelman

Cultivating and spreading joy has deep roots in Christianity, and in Catholicism particularly. Jesus was joyful, says Glover. Sr. Stelman adds that the scriptures are replete with references to joyfulness. She did a count of words in Psalms alone connected to joy and found more than 100. The patron saints of ministry founding congregations modeled joy in service to others as did the women religious who came after them to carry on the mission of easing the burdens of the poor and vulnerable. Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis and Mother Teresa all have focused on joy in their words and writings, says Sr. Stelman.

St. Francis, a patron saint of the foundresses of HSHS and FMOLHS, prized joy in creation and in relationships with others; and St. Benedict, a patron saint of Catholic facilities within Essentia, wrote of the joy of obedience to God in service to others.

And a love of joyful service has been passed down through founding congregations' members over the years, says Guarisco. "The sisters lived out joyfulness of spirit every day, and we have witnessed that and we continue to learn from their example."

Andra Ebert, the founder of the nonprofit Heartland Mini Hoofs, escorts mini horse Winnie, for visiting rounds at HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois, in July. Facilitating such visits is in line with HSHS' joy value.

Lorrie Hayden is a manager of the health information and patient registration departments and a mission leader at HSHS Good Shepherd Hospital in Shelbyville, Illinois. Hayden, who worked at the hospital before it was acquired by HSHS in 2017, says HSHS's intentional focus on joy makes for a welcoming culture. Joy spreads through acts of kindness and inclusion such as the breakfast for veterans hosted by hospital volunteers and the donut day hosted for all hospital staff.

Hayden says that the big and small ways that staff live out the joy value draw people in — in fact, many community members will come to the hospital even if they do not have a medical reason to do so, just to spend time there and perhaps grab a meal in the cafeteria.

Hayden says when the staff is doing their work in a joyful way, "It makes people feel comfortable being here, and they can feel the core values by the way we take care of them."

View audio of Sr. Stelman talking about joy as a value

Systems value joy

Several ministry systems include the concept of joy in their values statements. Here is a sampling of how those systems articulate those values:

  • Ascension, St. Louis: Dedication: Affirming the hope and joy of our ministry
  • Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, Baton Rouge, Lousiana: Joyfulness of Spirit — An awareness of being blessed by God in all things
  • Hospital Sisters Health System, Springfield, Illinois: Joy is the manner in which our colleagues and all who join us in our ministry seek to perform their work — the internal fulfillment of caring for others. It is an essential ingredient in bringing a sense of hope to those who suffer
  • SCL Health, Broomfield, Colorado: Good Humor — We create joyful and welcoming environments


Systems assess 'joy' through employee retention, patient satisfaction measures

Most activity in health care must be measured, and that is no less true when it comes to ensuring associates are adhering to the systems' values.

Leaders at Springfield, Illinois-based Hospital Sisters Health System; Duluth, Minnesota-based Essentia Health; St. Louis-based Ascension; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System say their systems use such measures as employee engagement scores, patient satisfaction scores and employee retention rates to gauge how well their values "take" in their cultures, including the joy value.

Here, in 2018 at Springfield, Illinois’ HSHS St. John’s Hospital, Sr. Joseph Wu, OSF, visits with Brian Blasco, center, director of communications and archivist for the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, and Paul Scherschel, foundation manager and senior gift officer for the Prairie Heart Foundation. At HSHS, Blasco speaks with colleagues about how sisters including the late Sr. Wu, lived out joy and the system’s other values. Sr. Wu died last year.

When systems focus on the value of joy and invest in employees' well-being, they often will see a payoff in terms of increased employee engagement and staff retention as well as improved patient satisfaction, says Erica Johnson, communications manager for HSHS' Central Illinois division.

Linda Lee Palmer, a respiratory therapist who is a 50-year employee of HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield, says "if you take care of employees, they'll take care of you" and that also will be felt by patients.

Ascension counters burnout with programs aimed at restoring joy in clinical practice.

Timothy Glover, Ascension's senior vice president of mission integration, says the Ascension Nursing Center of Excellence and the Ascension Medical Group are engaged in efforts to restore the joy of practice for doctors, nurses and other clinicians as a counterbalance to the pressing problem of burnout.

Glover says the nursing center is "developing measures that will be early indicators of joy and burnout in its nursing workforce, and it will be rolling out initiatives to increase joy and reduce fatigue." Ascension Medical Group is engaged in similar efforts "to create an environment that restores the well-being of practice and supports our physicians and advanced practice professionals in finding deeper meaning in their work."

Ascension established a Clinician Engagement and Well-Being Council and developed a Clinician Well-Being and Engagement playbook, a guide for clinical leaders that includes best practices intended to support personal resilience and well-being among practicing physicians.

Ascension surveys its associates throughout the year on their level of joy and satisfaction, and the system solicits input on how to effect these measures.




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