Abby Clifton says her mission as a healthcare HR leader remains simple. She and her teams exist to alleviate burdens frontline workers face, affording them greater focus on patient care. That mission guides Clifton in all she does as director of benefits and an HR Service Center at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
As Oregon’s lone academic health center, OHSU plays a vital role in community health and education. Its 19,000 employees and 5,000 students care for patients, train providers, complete clinical tests, and conduct research.
OHSU and its affiliates add more than 42,000 jobs and generate over $7 billion dollars for the local economy. American Healthcare Leader recently talked with Abby Clifton about what she’s doing to keep the state’s top-ranked hospital focused on the health and well-being of Oregonians as well as how she’s navigating the considerable challenges facing the industry today.
“We had to go outside our job descriptions, explore, ask questions, and push the envelope.”Abby Clifton
You’ve been in HR for about twenty years. What keeps you going?
I love benefits and culture, and everything that goes with it. But it’s the people that make HR really special. When you get a phone call, it can send your day in a whole new direction. There’s variety, and in healthcare especially, you get to align with great people and mission-driven organizations.
I know you talk about HR working in healthcare to let the providers care for patients. Where does that philosophy originate?
I was a benefits manager at Archbold Medical Center in Thomasville, Georgia, working to evaluate coverage trends and suggest changes to our package. The system worked with razor-thin margins and needed all-hands-on-deck, which gave me an incredible opportunity to get broad experience. We had to go outside our job descriptions, explore, ask questions, and push the envelope. The leaders drove home the concept that HR is a cost center, and our job is to make sure the people who provide care don’t waste their work hours worrying about HR stuff. HR people should do that.
What does that take?
It takes thoughtful, consistent, clear, and repetitive communication. It takes knowing how employee needs and preferences are changing and staying close to them. It takes good team collaboration.
Tell me about OHSU. What made it the right fit for you?
I came here about six years ago. We had been in Tennessee to live near my husband’s family, and I finished my MBA. It was time for something new, and I wanted a new challenge. OHSU is large and growing. The challenge is that we have to keep serving our employees, but that can’t mean that HR constantly adds full-time employee headcount to keep up with growth every time we add caregivers. Instead, we need to find more ways to be efficient, creative, and effective.
How do you do that?
There are a lot of ways today through technology and other solutions. We ask managers to do so much related to onboarding. It was a huge amount of time and paperwork, and then we had four student workers spending their whole time scanning, verifying, and routing employment documents. We now have an electronic system that does most of this for us, and the student workers are available to help our HR specialists with other aspects of their jobs.
“I will never be a frontline caregiver. I will never be a nurse or a doctor or a person in a research lab . . . but it speaks to me to be a person who supports those individuals. It’s rewarding to do what we do in this industry and for this organization.”Abby Clifton
Let’s turn to current events and the challenges in healthcare. How are those challenges impacting your work?
Well, like in most organizations, COVID-19 came and all of the sudden people who weren’t providing direct patient care weren’t allowed on campus. All employees had a new set of needs that were suddenly exposed. COVID-19 changed everything overnight, and it will change the future. But we see some of the changes as positive.
What’s been positive about it for your teams?
There are new needs that we can meet, and some of the issues that came to the forefront, like mental health, wellness, and burnout, needed to be addressed.
What have you been able to do along those lines?
There was a massive childcare need as schools and employers shut down. We got a pop-up childcare center organized in three days. We later partnered with local schools and opened it up to other people, not just our employees. We’re going to explore ways to expand childcare support permanently into the future. We did other programs, too—stipends, grants, and various other things. The popularity of what we offered showed us that HR in healthcare needs to shift from reactive to proactive. We are never going back to the way things were in February of 2020.
So, what does it look like going forward then?
That’s a good question. Some people will be hybrid. Some will be remote. We’re changing the way we’ve always done things—employees are demanding it. They want a better balance of work and personal time. They want better support for their mental health and their families. And we have to deliver.
We hear so much about mental wellness, but are employees really taking advantage of what you offer?
Overwhelmingly so. People who wouldn’t have time to commute to in-person sessions started seeing providers online. We saw a huge uptick in virtual usage. Even with a virtual option, we’re experiencing a shortage of providers in the area, so we’ve started using niche vendors to fill the gap. We found and advertised a twelve-week program that was very popular, and we’re looking to build out this piece even more. This goes to the communication piece from earlier. We’re going to keep talking to employees and rework the solution until we have what they need. We want to explore every route and every idea, and not just pick one thing and stick with it.
What else is big right now?[Diversity, equity, and inclusion] DEI and work-life balance. Our teams figure out what works for them when it comes to balance. We allow flexibility based on the work performed by the departments and ask leaders to set the tone. My team mimics my behavior, so I stop communicating at five in the evening. When my kids get home from school, I set my phone down, and I focus on them. We have to. There is a temptation to do too much when you work at an academic medical center. But our work is ongoing; it will never come to an end. So, we need to find a healthy rhythm.
Why are you still in healthcare?
I will never be a frontline caregiver. I will never be a nurse or a doctor or a person in a research lab . . . but it speaks to me to be a person who supports those individuals. It’s rewarding to do what we do in this industry and for this organization.