The Sunrise Senior Living community in Poland, Ohio, had a special sunrise last year.
It was the morning that Sunrise employee Delonte Carter became a licensed nurse—an achievement made possible by the tutoring of one of the residents that Carter had cared for as an aide.
After Carter, 25, failed his first attempt at the math entrance exam at a local nursing school, his manager suggested turning to resident Jean Williams, a veteran teacher with 47 years of experience. Williams was demanding. Two-hour sessions with no interruptions, outside of Carter’s regular work hours.
But it worked. Carter passed the entrance exam and went on to earn his nursing degree. It made for a poignant transition from one day to the next, recalls Chris Winkle, CEO of Sunrise. Carter made sure Williams was the last person he assisted as an aide, and the first he treated as a nurse.
“He literally helped her into bed one day, and the next day gave her her medications,” Winkle says.
A Great Place to Work for All
The story is one of Winkle’s favorites, because it captures a corporate culture that blends employee development, caring relationships and an overarching mission of championing quality of life for all seniors.
Related to that inclusive mission is Winkles’ goal that Sunrise create a great work experience for all its 25,000 employees in the U.S.—no matter who they are as individuals or what they do for the organization.
“With a for all culture, we ensure that we treat residents well,” Winkle says. “Every interaction matters and we’re all here for the purpose of giving joy every day to our residents.”
With its strong purpose and emphasis on building a consistently great culture, it’s not surprising that Sunrise earned a spot on the inaugural list of the Best Workplaces in Aging Services. Our organization, people analytics and research firm Great Place to Work, just published this list in partnership with Fortune.
The list reflects the efforts of Great Place to Work’s subsidiary focused on senior care, Activated Insights.
Great Place to Work and Activated Insights surveyed more than 162,000 employees across nearly all 50 states to measure the workplace experience in areas including respect, fairness and leadership competence. These three areas are the foundation of employees’ trust in leaders, and the basis of the Great Place to Work Trust Index® Employee Survey. Our methodology also captures how consistent an organization’s culture is across demographic groups and job levels.
This first-ever ranking of the aging services industry revealed great variability in the employee experience at different companies and job sites. The highest scoring location had a Trust Index® employee score more than 4x greater than the lowest scoring location.
Addressing this variability is critical. Better cultures translate into better care outcomes: our research shows that higher Trust Index® scores means better care for patients and elderly individuals.
It also means better business. Great Place to Work has found that consistently great cultures enjoy three times the revenue growth of less-inclusive peers.
The Coming “Silver Lining”
High-quality, successful aging services providers are much needed. The U.S. population is aging at an unprecedented rate. Within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2035, there will be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.
The aging population is not lost on business leaders. An outpouring of investments into this sector has been fueled by funding from private and public REITs (real estate investment trusts). The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care estimates that as of December 31, 2017, senior housing real estate accounted for five percent of the real estate value in the U.S. Moreover, several at-home providers have merged or been acquired. Earlier this year, Humana (NYSE: HUM) completed its $800 million acquisition of 40 percent of Kindred Healthcare, and LHG (NASDAQ: LHCG) merged with Almost Family (formerly AFAM) in a deal valued at $2.4 billion.
Despite the availability of capital, one of the top challenges in this rapidly growing sector is a shortage of talent. Argentum, a leading industry association for senior housing providers, estimates that 1.2 million more workers will be needed by 2025. Their experts say the labor shortages have to do with a lack of awareness about careers in senior living, as well as the perception that industry occupations, such as nursing aides, have limited upward mobility. In an effort to address the staffing challenges, Argentum has started a program at senior living works to connect industry leaders with high schools and colleges so more students can discover the field.
Other segments of aging services, including nursing homes, PACE programs (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), non-medical home care and healthcare at-home organizations such as home health and hospice also need workers.
As many organizations struggle with attracting and retaining talent, Sunrise Senior Living enjoys an employee turnover rate well below the industry average of over 40 percent per year.
What is the Sunrise secret to success? It has much to do with leadership by Chris Winkle that is playful, personal and purposeful.
Take Winkle’s all-company phone calls, which he makes at least three times a year. Rather than conduct these from the Sunrise home office in McLean, Va., Winkle picks one of the company’s 325 facilities from which to hold the call. And each time it’s a surprise—“one of the deepest kept secrets,” Winkle says. At some organizations, the prospect of an unannounced visit from the top boss might be more frightful than fun. But Winkle says staffers seem to enjoy the event and the attention. Sunrise assisted living community leaders who have planned offsite retreats on all-company call days have even taken to leaving notes for Winkle about where they are, just in case he comes “calling.”
Part of what disarms community managers and team members alike is the way Winkle connects the work of senior care to his own lived experience. Winkle and his wife cared for his now-deceased father in their home for a number of years. And he made a habit of sharing a photo of his dad, wearing a hat while napping by the pool, with his stern “watch cat” guarding his side. The picture was a way to help team members remember that “every single resident is someone’s family member,” Winkle says. “Even if our resident and family satisfaction is 99.9 percent, if there is one person dissatisfied, you care about your own loved one. Period.”
That personal touch also speaks to how Winkle and Sunrise keep the company’s purpose front and center. Most Sunrise meetings start with a “Minute for Mission” – a story or letter from a family member whose life Sunrise has touched.
The storytelling at Sunrise includes frequent references to the company’s origins and values. Started in 1981 by husband and wife Paul and Terry Klaassen, who got a $25,000 loan from a church friend, the first Sunrise community was a renovated 33-bed home in Oakton, Virginia. The newly-wed Klaassens made it their home and lived with their elderly residents, infusing the home with the Dutch model of assisted care that Paul observed in his childhood. To this day at company meetings, Paul Klaassen will recount the names of those first residents who inspired “nurturing the spirit” as a company value.
The Delonte Carter-Jean Williams tutoring tale is just one more uplifting anecdote to add to the mix. It began with Carter showing initiative—he’d worked at the Poland facility for six years in a variety of posts including maintenance staffer and health aide, but wanted to advance further. When he told the executive director of his community as much, she was the one who suggested nursing. With help from Williams, the rest is history. Or perhaps their story.
“I love this story,” Winkle says. “You see a young man with such dedication whose director saw his potential. She encourages him to pursue a career in nursing and a resident tutors him to success. It encapsulates our culture and what we seek to do each day.”
Dr. Jacquelyn Kung is CEO of Activated Insights, a Great Place to Work company. Ed Frauenheim is senior director of content at Great Place to Work, FORTUNE’s research partner for its Best Workplace lists, including the Best Workplaces in Aging Services. Frauenheim also is co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.