- Open access
- Published: 10 June 2022
Human resource management in Ethiopian public hospitals
- Philipos Petros Gile 1 ,
- Joris van de Klundert 2 , 3 &
- Martina Buljac-Samardzic 3
BMC Health Services Research volume 22 , Article number: 763 ( 2022 ) Cite this article
In Ethiopia, public hospitals deal with a persistent human resource crisis, even by Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) standards. Policy and hospital reforms, however, have thus far resulted in limited progress towards addressing the strategic human resource management (SHRM) challenges Ethiopia’s public hospitals face.
To explore the contextual factors influencing these SHRM challenges of Ethiopian public hospitals, we conducted a qualitative study based on the Contextual SHRM framework of Paauwe. A total of 19 structured interviews were conducted with Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and HR managers from a purposive sample of 15 hospitals across Ethiopia. An additional four focus groups were held with professionals and managers.
The study found that hospitals compete on the supply side for scarce resources, including skilled professionals. There was little reporting on demand-side competition for health services provided, service quality, and service innovation. Governmental regulations were the main institutional mechanism in place. These regulations also emphasized human resources and were perceived to tightly regulate employee numbers, salaries, and employment arrangements at detailed levels. These regulations were perceived to restrict the autonomy of hospitals regarding SHRM. Regulation-induced differences in allowances and external employment arrangements were among the concerns that decreased motivation and job satisfaction and caused employees to leave. The mismatch between regulation and workforce demands posed challenges for leadership and caused leaders to be perceived as incompetent and unable when they could not successfully address workforce needs.
Bottom-up involvement in SHRM may help resolve the aforementioned persistent problems. The Ethiopian government might better loosen regulations and provide more autonomy to hospitals to develop SHRM and implement mechanisms that emphasize the quality of the health services demanded rather than the quantity of human resources supplied.
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The genesis of the human resources for health crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is complex and context specific, even if common factors are applicable across Africa [ 1 , 2 , 3 ]. SSA carries 24% of the global burden of disease, but only 3.5% of the global health workforce works in this region [ 2 , 4 , 5 ]. Ethiopia faces acute shortages of skilled professionals and has a low physician-to-population ratio of 2.5 physicians per 100,000. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation for low-income countries is four times higher at 10 physicians per 100,000 [ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 ]. The insufficiency of the workforce to meet the demand for care results in the inability to provide sufficient and proper care [ 10 , 11 ]. Such human resource challenges are further exacerbated by policy and regulatory incoherence and inconsistencies in Ethiopia and, more generally, SSA [ 6 , 12 ].
Ethiopian public hospitals especially reflect the country’s poor health system and deal with a persistent human resources crisis, even by SSA standards [ 7 ]. The government has taken notable steps to reform the health system, especially in the domain of maternal and child health [ 10 , 13 ]. The reforms have, however, fallen short of resolving the contextual challenges hospitals encounter in the human resource management (HRM) domain. First, the policy measures have been unable to resolve the labour market issues arising from an insufficient supply of skilled healthcare professionals and difficulties with retaining the qualified staff attracted [ 4 , 14 , 15 ]. Second, public hospital reform is hampered by a heritage of poor general and administrative performance [ 16 , 17 , 18 ]. Third, institutional health system issues hamper effective reform implementation, despite the robust regulatory framework put in place [ 16 , 17 ]. Among these institutional challenges are budget constraints and centralized decision making, which are subject to political dynamics [ 8 , 13 , 14 , 19 ].
Our research aims to understand how such contextual challenges influence HRM in public hospitals that deliver health services to the Ethiopian population. More specifically and formally, the research question regarding Ethiopian public hospitals therefore is as follows: How do contextual health system mechanisms influence hospital-level HRM in Ethiopian public hospitals?
Before presenting the theoretical framework and methods to address this research question, we present further background on Ethiopia, its health system and its public hospitals.
Ethiopia and the Ethiopian health care system
The population of Ethiopia was approximately 120 million by the end of 2021, of which 83% lived in rural areas [ 20 ]. Human resource shortages and imbalances, large geographical distances, budget shortages, and socioeconomic factors are the main causes of substandard and poor health services for the Ethiopian population [ 21 ]. Even according to SSA standards, Ethiopia experiences relatively high burdens of disease and mortality. Respiratory infections, maternal and child health complications, road traffic injuries, malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhoeal diseases are among the conditions with the highest disease burden and years of life lost [ 22 , 23 , 24 ].
The Ethiopian health system is comprised of primary-, secondary-, and tertiary-level facilities. The primary level encompasses primary hospitals, health centres, and health posts. Secondary-level (general) hospitals and tertiary-level (university) hospitals manage complex heath conditions for larger populations [ 25 ]. The resulting three-tiered system is depicted in Fig. 1 , which also depicts the hospital catchment population sizes per level [ 13 ].
The Ethiopian Health Care System. Source: (Federal Ministry of Health, 2019 [ 17 ]; Alebachew & Waddington, 2015 [ 26 ])
The total Ethiopian health workforce amounted to 219,542 in 2016, of which 150,534 (68%) were health professionals of various categories for the entire health system [ 13 ]. The Federal Ministry of Health (MOH) plans to progressively increase the number of health professionals in various categories from 248,538 in 2020 to 374,368 by 2025, which is still well below the WHO recommendation of 2.3 health workers per 1000 population set for SSA [ 10 ].
Reforms to increase these numbers have been negatively impacted by job dissatisfaction at all levels of the Ethiopian public health system, causing the workforce to leave for jobs in private healthcare, other sectors, and/or abroad. Low salary, poor working conditions, and poor compensation and benefit packages are the main factors pushing’ the workforce to seek employment outside of the Ethiopian public health system [ 4 , 27 ]. The reforms not only have struggled to effectively address job satisfaction and staff motivation but have more generally failed to improve skill levels and the quality and efficiency of service delivery [ 9 ]. Hence, there is an urgent call for developing an effective HRM strategy and fostering a healthy, committed, and respectful workforce to address skill gaps, motivation, satisfaction, migration, and incentives and thereby improve patient outcomes [ 7 ]. Correspondingly, Ethiopia’s ‘strategic human resources for health plan’ (2016–2020) sets a vision for an adequate number of well qualified, committed, compassionate, respectful, and caring health workers contributing to the public health sector vision of Ethiopia and policy goals [ 13 ].
Literature and theoretical framework
HRM can be defined as a systematic approach to manage the workforce aiming to optimize performance of employees [ 28 ]. Effective HRM has been reported to be of critical importance in healthcare organizations (e.g., [ 29 , 30 ]). A recent systematic literature review identified evidence on the effectiveness of HRM practices in SSA hospitals [ 2 ]. Although HRM varies in different settings, effective HRM practices can increase client satisfaction and, more generally, enhance organizational performance through their effect on employee behaviour [ 28 , 31 ]. Strategic HRM (SHRM) aligns HRM and business strategy in which HRM is designed to enable an organization to achieve its goals and enhance firm performance and competitive advantage is achieved [ 32 , 33 ].
Several SHRM models have been developed over the years, each with its own focus and strengths, for example, the Huselid model, Guest model, Brewster model, Michigan model, Harvard model, Sparrow model, and Warwick model [ 34 ]. Several classic SHRM models focus on the elements between HRM and outcomes (e.g., Guest model, Michigan model). Most models have broadened the scope by including several (internal and external) contextual factors that influence SHRM (e.g., the Harvard model). However, the extent and detail to which contextual factors are emphasized varies among models. Some models combine different models and/or theories into one framework. For example, in the Contextual SHRM Framework, Paauwe combines several theoretical perspectives into one framework. It shows that HRM is part of an organization, which is part of a broader society/operating context. The Contextual SHRM Framework focuses on three broad contextual mechanisms that affect the SHRM system adapted by an organization: competitive, institutional, and heritage mechanisms. The Contextual SHRM Framework, which is the improved version of the contextually based human resource theory (CBHRT) framework (both developed by Paauwe) [ 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 ], has been adopted by a variety of authors to understand the effects of context on strategic HRM issues, both within the healthcare sector and in other sectors [ 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 ].
To uncover the role contextual challenges play in the strategic HRM of Ethiopian public hospitals, the authors build on the Contextual SHRM Framework (by Paauwe) and on recent insights into SSA hospitals [ 21 ]. In addition, the study is mindful of the limitations to the validity of the Contextual SHRM Framework in the context of public hospitals in Ethiopia. For instance, a topic such as competitive advantage may be (ir) relevant in ways that are not yet considered. Moreover, this context may reveal factors not yet included in the framework.
A qualitative study was conducted through structured interviews with respondents from public hospitals in Ethiopia. The study findings are reported in accordance with the COREQ criteria (see Additional file 2 )[ 42 ]. The interview structure was derived from Paauwe’s Contextual SHRM Framework [ 37 ] (see Fig. 2 ).
Contextual SHRM Framework (source: Paauwe and Farndale 2017 [ 37 ])
The authors selected 15 hospitals by purposive sampling. We aimed to select public hospitals that are representative of the Ethiopian public setting. Authors thus approached a collection of hospitals that differed in hospital level (i.e., general, teaching, specialized, primary), geographical setting (i.e., regional large towns, regional and rural provincial settings, city government of Addis Ababa), and governance (i.e., federal and regional level governments). Table 1 gives details of all the hospitals included for data collection. Data were collected between March and September 2019.
Interviews were conducted with purposively selected respondents holding different positions within the hospital’s HRM hierarchy who are knowledgeable of the hospital’s HRM practices. This enabled us to gain broad insight into the variety of viewpoints on the contextual mechanisms that influence HRM across departments and hierarchical levels.
Our first request at each hospital was to interview the executive board member responsible for HRM and the head of the HRM department (Table 2 shows the respondents’ characteristics). If these respondents were not able to participate or if these positions were not fulfilled within the structure, team leaders and HR directors of health bureaus were approached. In total, the authors interviewed 19 respondents.
In addition, the authors conducted 4 focus group discussions (FGDs) with 38 participants in total. The participants of the FGDs (details presented in Table 3 ) were managers, experienced middle managers and line managers, including matrons, heads of the clinical, outpatient, and inpatient departments, and heads of departments responsible for quality, governance, and planning. The FGDs provided a second source of data from middle and lower management respondents, ensuring data triangulation.
The topic list and structured interview guideline (presented in Appendix 1 ) were jointly constructed by all authors and based on document analysis of the FMOH Health Account and National HRH strategic Plan [ 13 , 17 ] and Paauwe’s framework [ 37 ]. The interview guideline was piloted in three Ethiopian hospitals by the first and second authors and subsequently revised. To ensure quality and validity, all authors were involved in this stage. The second author (JVK) travelled three times to visit the first author (PPG), where the research was conducted, while the third author engaged from the Netherlands (MBS).
All interviews and FGDs were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim after ensuring written consent from all respondents. The transcripts were thematically analysed using ATLAS.ti 8 [ 43 ]. We followed our original, approved, protocol which provided several forms of data triangulation. The analysis followed the steps below, in which all authors were involved:
Step 1 The authors familiarized themselves with the data by (re) reading transcripts and identifying the essence and patterns of meaning and potential issues of interest.
Step 2 An initial coding tree or scheme was developed to generate topics of interest. These initial codes were identified following a deductive coding approach based on the Conceptual SHRM Framework.
Step 3 The authors verified whether the initial list of codes covered the key elements of Paauwe’s model and resolved any gaps. Moreover, the authors inductively generated open codes emerging from the data that did not appear to directly relate to the contextual SHRM framework (such as poverty and moonlighting).
Step 4 Broader code groups were created for each theme, and subgroups of codes were created for code groups with a large number of codes.
Step 5 All codes were combined into agreed-upon broader code groups and themes that were based on similarities and (visualized) linkages in the data and the framework.
Step 6 The final themes were analysed and synthesized into results, presented below.
Ethical approval was obtained from the Ethiopian Public Health Institute.
This section presents the main findings of our analysis in a sequence that chronologically provides evidence to answer the research questions described in the introduction. The results are structured to show how the three contextual factors, competitive, institutional and heritage mechanisms, are linked to and positively or negatively influence HRM and health outcomes in Ethiopian public hospitals.
Competitive mechanisms: competing for resources and not for patients
As defined in Paauwe’s framework, this mechanism entails the product (e.g., service provisioning), market (competitiveness and economic fitness) and technology (innovation) contexts.
None of the respondents mentioned competition for patients. Neither were hospitals perceived to lose patients for reasons of quality or (limitations in) services provided: ‘We don’t lose customers because there is no competition (R8).’ This is likely caused by insufficient capacity to fully meet the demand for care, as can be witnessed in the treatment of admitted patients. For example, ‘Emergency departments have patients on recliners for several days (R11).’ As a result, hospitals appear to compete for scarce resources rather than for customers. Respondents particularly mention the competition for skilled health care professionals. Rural hospitals are most challenged in this competition: ‘Rural hospitals face a critical shortages of nurses, surgeons, radiologists, laboratory technicians, and ENT staff (R17).’ Likewise, public hospitals are perceived to struggle more than private hospitals, which offer better working conditions, such as a higher salary.
Innovation was hardly recognized as a relevant competitive factor. Most respondents reported little to no innovation due to budget shortages, high patient demands and government influence. Among the few exceptions mentioned in health service innovation are the introduction of renal transplantation and the placement of shipping containers to resolve room shortages (R5).
Interestingly, some hospitals have taken innovative approaches to improve their attractiveness as employers, again focusing on the competition for resources. For instance, they offered benefits for their employees, such as free medical services for all staff, a supermarket for personnel, or transportation services. In addition, hospitals tried to enhance their attractiveness as employers through HRM innovations such as increasing autonomy and job security, providing education, and introducing collaborative leadership (R11).
Institutional mechanisms: the dominant role of the government
The institutional mechanisms mentioned in Paauwe’s framework are 1) institutional isomorphisms that influence decision making in organizations, 2) coercive mechanisms that emerge from power sources (e.g., government, employment legislation), and 3) normative mechanisms of adopting standards. They include sociocultural values and norms and the policy, legal and political context impacting strategic HRM practices. The findings for this component relate almost exclusively to the government.
The studied hospitals are subject to coercive pressures that result from government regulations. For instance, respondents frequently mention the influence of stringent regulations. Government regulations are perceived as set in stone and ‘ are executed like the Quran and the Bible’ and pervasively impact daily practices in ‘ hiring, salary, allowances, promotion, firing, disciplinary measures, as HR managers have no leeway to change them [regulations].’ In exceptional cases, these stringent and pervasive regulations are seen as beneficial and supportive. For instance, regulations to increase maternity leave from 3 to 4 months were perceived as positive, as they improved the quality of life of female workers (R16).
In general, however, respondents considered governmental regulation to be counterproductive. This is especially the case for regulations regarding financial incentives where payment differences that resulted from regulations were perceived as unfair. The respondents considered it to be especially discriminatory if payment differences occurred in cases perceived as comparable:
‘ Regulations are not supportive; there is variation in implementing the regulations and law on workforce deployment, salary and allowances even in the same region (R12).’
FG2 members considered that members of the ‘workforce with the same level of occupation, profession and experiences are compensated with different salary levels that violate labour rights, which is discouraging for HR managers and workforce.’
Respondents also explicitly mentioned differences in financial regulation between medical doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff as being unfair, discriminatory, and disproportional. FG3, for example, added : ‘professionals’ work is enabled by the support from a nonclinical cohort of staff as a team, but the regulation violates such teamwork through unfair allowances.’
Some respondents pointed out that ‘ … such differences negatively impact collaboration and team building in hospitals, reduce well-being, and might cause turnover of skilled professionals (R 12).’ ‘ Teamwork is coerced rather than built organically via these discriminatory practices (R10).’ FG2 participants shared this view: ‘ Although h ospital care is teamwork, government regulation violates this culture through discouraging compensation .’
All the studied hospitals reported tension between political versus hospital interests and goals. Politicians are perceived to set up goals for hospitals that mainly refer to productivity in numbers, including numbers of health service professionals and support staff. The activities by which the government subsequently allocates increasing numbers of professionals and staff is sometimes referred to as an HRH flooding strategy. For instance, respondents mentioned the ‘ flooding strategy for physicians ’ (R3) and the ‘ massive production of nurses’ as enforced by politicians …. ’ (R10). Respondents perceived that this quantitative focus inhibited attention to the quality of healthcare services for patients and for the well-being of the workforce. Hence, in the eyes of many respondents, politicians prioritized policy interests and political interests, such as party interests, over hospital interests.
‘ …. [There is] political imposition to focus on quantity over quality. This has induced gaps in the knowledge and skills of professionals (R19’).
‘Their [politicians’] conflicting interest of fighting for their political issues and maintaining their top position and loyalty to party interest. No attention given for managing hospital and service quality (R3).’
In some cases in which politicians held executive positions in the hospital, political interests were reported to be better aligned with the hospital interests. Compared to their competitors, these hospitals appeared to benefit from political involvement:
‘Our primary hospital is lucky because it has the local-level politicians as board members, and party loyalty made them empowered and confident. They [the politicians] are very supportive with the budget, but at the federal level and in some regions, there is no such political support in budget and HRM issues (R17).’
Normative mechanisms emanating from government regulations affect HRM practices. All the studied hospitals report that government regulation does not accept or allow absenteeism and moonlighting. However, some respondents considered that ‘although moonlighting is an unacceptable norm [to the government), it is practised mostly by skilled professionals because of coercive mechanisms of the government (e.g., not allowing workforce to get equal overtime payment and allowances) (R16).’ ‘This pressures professionals to illegally engage in dual practices or causes high turnover (R1).’ The resultant high turnover might subsequently put the quality of care at risk:
‘Hospitals are a human capital-intensive and risky working environment, but a risk allowance incentive set by policy makers/government for the whole workforce of the hospital was not considered [by management] (FG3).’
‘This is because the regulations failed to address the low salary, which is pushing professionals to leave and negatively impacts service provision and health outcomes (R1).’
Despite the dissatisfaction with the current policy and the felt urgency to change it, some respondents had faith in the improvement attempts. In general, however, respondents stated that the policy reforms aimed at managing budgets and the allocation of the (newly educated) workforce and disregarded the well-being and job satisfaction of the workforce in the public hospitals.
Variation in the implementation of regulations between regions further decreased faith in policy and further increased the dissatisfaction of the workforce:
‘There are variations in implementing health policy, with a lack of health insurance for employees in some regions. It is present in other regions and hospitals, with a clear policy and HR strategy incoherence and inconsistency in the country. This leads to apathy, low satisfaction and performance of the workforce (FG3).’
Heritage mechanisms: A heritage of limited human resource management leeway.
Paauwe’s framework describes heritage mechanisms affecting the human capital context, organizational culture, structure, and systems that ultimately impact HRM. It considers the path dependence of HRM and its fit with other preceding organizational developments.
From the responses, it becomes clear that the aforementioned lack of competition and top-down enforcement of stringent regulations are long standing and have therefore become part of HRM practices. Even on the operational level, the studied hospitals report that staffing issues have been controlled not by hospital management but by ministries and/or regional health bureaus. For example,
‘The role of the HR manager is not recognized because the structure doesn’t empower the HR department, mainly due to failures of health policy reform in addressing HR issues (FG2).’
All hospitals reported a prolonged lack of leeway to develop their own HRM systems and practices. Respondents perceived the regulatory bureaucracy as a complex contextual and organizational structure that hinders the resolution of HRM challenges and promotes political dynamics.
‘The structure of teaching hospitals is very complex and confusing, with accountability to various government bodies and multisector governance from federal ministries (R5).’
‘ The governing board is not supportive in addressing hospital demands and HR issues in time; instead, an intersectoral governance approach is missing (FG3).’
Within this difficult and complex environment, leadership was found to be a critical element. However, it was felt that leaders mostly adopted the government logic and were disconnected from HRM and patient care:
‘Our hospital lacks leadership competence, which also contributes to the inability to improve HR issues. This is mainly due to the appointment procedure based on party criteria (FG2).’
Some respondents reported a ‘Lack of a supportive leadership culture in valuing staff as an asset also creating disengagement of workforce (R12).’ ‘Ex-leadership was autocratic, giving more focus to ethnic/tribal and political networks, unable to solve HR problems (R6).’
Positive affirmations of the importance of leadership were also provided: ‘Our hospital has a culture of collaborative leadership in empowering line managers to take HR responsibilities (R11). ’ ‘The hospital values the workforce as an asset rather than a cost (R15). ‘There is a culture of collegial relationships that are useful for employee and hospital performance; there is a new culture developed by the CEO of the hospital with a good staff-management relationship (R1).’
To understand how empirically identified contextual factors influence HRM practices in Ethiopian public hospitals, we conducted qualitative research based on the Contextual SHRM Framework. This framework includes the institutional mechanisms (e.g., policy, legal, and regulatory frameworks and sociocultural, demographic, and political factors), competitive mechanisms (e.g., labour market, technology, and innovation), and heritage mechanisms (e.g., structure, culture, systems, and human capital), as identified to impact SHRM in Ethiopian public hospitals. In addition to this deductive approach, we inductively searched for additional contextual factors within these three mechanism categories and explored the working of these factors. The results are based on document analysis, individual interviews, and focus group discussions.
Before addressing competitive, heritage, and institutional mechanisms separately, a main first finding is that the persistent shortages of human resources and financial resources form a foundational contextual factor that influences most competitive, institutional, and heritage mechanisms. The national government actively engages to address the consequences of these shortages by allocating human and financial resources to specific hospitals. Moreover, it promotes the education of increased volumes of health professionals. This government policy reform and implementation subsequently forms a main institutional factor that severely impacts HRM in Ethiopian hospitals, as further addressed below.
With respect to competitive mechanisms, the scarcity of human resources leads to supply-side competition for skilled professionals. This competition is particularly challenging for public hospitals, which depend on governmental allocation decisions and rarely have leeway to deviate from the prescribed salaries and allowances to retain necessary skilled personnel. Hence, jobs in private hospitals and outside the health sector continue to attract public hospital staff, causing turnover at public hospitals to be high. This limits the effectiveness of the HR flooding and allocation strategies implemented by the government, while hospitals have little room to manoeuvre to resolve these problems. These findings confirm previous research reporting a shortage of skilled professionals aggravated by high turnover and mainly driven by budget scarcity and corresponding low salaries [ 6 , 7 ]. Previous studies (e.g., [ 9 , 10 ]) have also shown that the current government efforts may not lead to a decrease in workforce shortages unless financial resources are addressed. Moreover, the practice of allowing moonlighting might continue to form an attractive and common, yet noncompliant, human resource practice. This situation contrasts with that in other African countries, in which moonlighting is regulated and accepted [ 44 ].
Our findings thus provide evidence of human resource shortages faced by low- and middle-income countries, causing the market to be eminently shaped by service supply [ 15 ]. Our data do not provide evidence of competitive mechanisms on the demand side, e.g., hospitals competing for patients by providing higher quality of care or additional services. Correspondingly, the few innovative practices we found mainly aimed to increase the attractiveness of the hospital for employees and were not targeted at patients. They included offering free medical and transportation services for employees and HRM innovations (e.g., increasing job autonomy, job security, education) and introducing collaborative leadership.
The dominant institutional factor of tight government control was perceived to be quantity oriented. This finding substantiates previous research [ 7 ] on government responses to workforce shortages. Moreover, the tightly controlling regulations influenced HRM at a very detailed level, such as the number of nurses per department and the salaries of individuals. This tight quantitative control implied logics and priorities that differed considerably from the views of the hospital employees. These professionals prioritized quality over quantity, in particular the quality of care provided and the quality of the arrangements for human resources. Such differences in logics between management and professionals have been previously recognized to be negatively associated with retention and thus to adversely impact the underlying policy aims [ 4 ].
From a human resource perspective, and in view of the low salaries, differences in regulation and arrangements for allowances and external employments were a main concern. They caused financial inequalities among employees that were perceived as unjust and led to dissatisfaction and demotivation. Some studies [ 16 , 19 ] support our finding that differences in regulations, political forces and shortages of critical resources complicate attempts to address urgent HRM issues. Previous studies added financial inequalities, lack of coordination and ineffective policy implementation as causes for incoherence and regulatory/policy failures to address HRM issues [ 45 , 46 , 47 ].
The focus on quantity diminished the possibility of tailoring HRM arrangements to the needs of employees. Therefore, this approach contrasts sharply with the HRM architecture and talent management literature, which stresses the need for tailoring HRM practices for organizational performance [ 48 ]. The combination of a dominant top-down government logic and regulation that was ‘implemented like the Koran and the Bible’ with the difficulties experienced by staff as communicated bottom up put the hospital and HR leadership in a difficult position. HR managers felt compelled to devote their time to the implementation of and compliance with tight regulations. These regulations inhibited the empowerment of hospital and HR leaders to provide tailored and locally effective responses as considered necessary to effectively address the challenges. Leaders experienced a lack of autonomy. In terms of the contextual SHRM framework, they perceived a lack of ‘leeway’ or ‘room to manoeuvre’ [ 35 ].
The lack of leeway and the corresponding HR leadership challenges were perceived as a long-lasting heritage factor. There is a history of government appointment of senior hospital management. Board members were often perceived to emerge from a network with political, tribal, and/or religious ties and to prioritize the logic and demands from this background over workforce logic and demands. While it was understood that the needs and objectives from the government and the workforce were very difficult to address simultaneously, their perceived inability to address workforce demands contributed to senior management/leadership being regarded as incompetent. Likewise, the literature shows that managers’ lack of decision space/autonomy for changing HRM also contributes to the perceived low competence of leaders and the hospital workforce [ 49 , 50 , 51 , 52 ]. In addition. The workforce appeared to have rarely been engaged in HRM decision making. The lack of bottom-up approaches has led to apathy, disengagement, and demotivation and subsequently to illegal moonlighting and high turnover.
The results of our study clearly emphasize the relevance of some of the categories and elements of the contextual SHRM framework, such as government-driven coercive and normative institutional factors. Competitive mechanisms played a role, yet only on the financial and human resource supply side, rather than on the demand side of health service competition. These factors differ from the empirical findings underpinning the contextual SHRM framework. Likewise, our findings reveal few of the traditional heritage mechanisms. They do reveal a history of leadership challenges, however, which relate partially to appointment practices and partially to the effects of the combined contextual mechanisms: a lack of leeway in HRM. The very complex HRM challenges faced by Ethiopian hospitals are addressed in a strategic HRM context where management has very little room to manoeuvre. This might explain why practices have emerged that are technically outside this regulated space, such as moonlighting, in an effort to retain the skilled staff needed to provide public health services to the Ethiopian population. These findings reveal HRM practices that are beyond the leeway captured by the Contextual SHRM Framework [ 35 ].
Strengths and limitations of the study
This study includes a large and varied sample of Ethiopian hospitals covering various geographic locations, rural and urban settings, and central and regional governments. The study particularly engages various respondents, ranging from experienced administrators and HR managers to team leaders and professionals. This triangulation was further strengthened by using interviews, focus group discussion, and document analysis.
After piloting and contextualization, the structured interviews following the Contextual SHRM Framework elicited rich responses from the respondents and captured the external mechanisms influencing HR management in Ethiopian hospitals. Moreover, the complementary open questions and inductive analysis enabled us to identify additional factors and insights. Our study therefore adds to previous studies that were largely based on secondary data, gave little attention to these external factors and addressed other contexts (e.g.,[ 2 , 3 , 19 ]).
A first limitation of our study concerns the regional conflicts within Ethiopia that caused delays and restricted travel to the study settings/regions (Oromia, SNNP). Moreover, the recent circumstances in the large, diverse and dynamic federal state Ethiopia have impacted the data collection opportunities and caused us to adhere to our approved research protocol. We cannot claim to have covered all current perspectives nor to have reached data saturation. We may have missed some factors and aspects of mechanisms, and our study may not be generalizable to other hospitals in Ethiopia. Second, the collection of data from employees not involved in management was not extensive (only as FGD participants). More extensive inclusion of such respondents is recommended in future research (see, e.g., [ 4 ]). Third, quantitative data for some HRM and management issues (e.g., workforce satisfaction and perception towards engagement) were not accurately documented in each of the hospitals. Thus, data triangulation through the addition of quantitative data was not possible. Fourth, the study exclusively focused on public hospitals in Ethiopia. Therefore, the generalizability to private hospitals and other healthcare contexts and countries may be low.
Guided by Paauwe’s Contextual SHRM framework, our study looked at how competitive, institutional and heritage mechanisms influence the shaping of SHRM in fifteen public hospitals in Ethiopia. It is considered that the combination of these contextual factors shapes SHRM in the studied hospitals. The competitive mechanisms relate mostly to competition for scarce human resources rather than for customers and rarely to competitive advantage and innovation. The institutional mechanisms appear most important and influence SHRM through stringent top-down regulations, supporting governmental policies to build workforce volume within a limited budget. The heritage mechanisms reveal little variation between public hospitals and appear to be mainly entrenched with politics and government regulations regarding health workforce policies.
Our study shows that although top management complied with the coercive government regulations/policies, these instruments failed to address persistent HRM challenges. Hospitals lack autonomy to design their HRM policy/strategy and tailor arrangements to workforce needs. Leadership is perceived to lack competence, as HR managers lack leeway to shape HRM.
As potential remedies for the aforementioned situations, we therefore recommend the following:
The government should loosen regulations and provide authority and leeway to hospitals for strategic HRM to tailor solutions to the local context and challenges.
The governmental entities involved should collaboratively design simplified organizational and HR governance structures, especially for teaching hospitals.
Government regulations can more actively consider health service demand and promote responsiveness in provisioning service delivery and service quality, thus connecting explicitly to the values of the professionals and the needs of patients.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
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We thank the Federal Ministry of Health and Regional Health Bureaus for making secondary documents available and granting letters of support for cooperation. The authors wholeheartedly thank the hospitals and study participants for providing the pertinent information used in this study.
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Philipos Petros Gile
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PPG, JVDK and MBS were responsible for the initial conception of the proposal, research questions, research design, and final manuscript preparation. PPG was primarily responsible for the proposal development, literature study, conduction of all interviews, and transcribing and reporting. PPG and JVDK pilot tested the data collection. PPG was responsible for manuscript writing, and JVDK and MBS were responsible for supervision, review and revision of the manuscript. All authors were responsible for data analysis, interpretation and reporting. PPG, JVDK and MBS read, edited, and approved the submitted manuscript. The authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Correspondence to Philipos Petros Gile .
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All participants provided their informed consent to participate in this study. This study was reviewed by the Ethics Committee/Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute and was conducted in accordance with the Institutional/National guidelines. Therefore, the study and the informed consent procedures were approved by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (Approval NO. EPHI-IRB-131-2018, Date: 31 Dec 2018) of the Ministry of Health. Interviews and group discussions were recorded following the protocol after the respondents gave their explicit informed consent.
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Consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ): a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups.
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Gile, P.P., van de Klundert, J. & Buljac-Samardzic, M. Human resource management in Ethiopian public hospitals. BMC Health Serv Res 22 , 763 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-022-08046-7
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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-022-08046-7
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Original research article, strategic human resource management and performance in public hospitals in ethiopia.
- 1 Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands
- 2 Higher Education Institutions' Partnership, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- 3 School of Business, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile, Chile
Background: Ethiopian public hospitals struggle to meet health care needs of the Ethiopian population, in part because of the persistent human resources crisis. The health reforms and tight human resource management (HRM) regulation of the government have resulted in limited progress toward addressing this crisis. This study aims to analyze how the strategic HRM practices adopted by Ethiopian public hospitals influence employee outcomes, organizational outcomes, and patient outcomes.
Methods: Structured interviews were conducted with 19 CEOs and HR managers from 15 hospitals. Four focus groups were also conducted, with 38 participants (professionals and line managers). The transcripts were thematically analyzed using ATLAS.ti 8. Deductive coding was used based on the Contextual SHRM framework, while remaining open for codes that emerged.
Results: Intended HR practices are influenced by mandatory strict government regulations. Nevertheless, some room for self-selected (bundles of) HR practices is perceived by hospitals. Employees perceive that governmental steered HR practices may not match its intentions due to implementation issues, related to lack of support and skilled management and HR professionals. These problems are leading to dissatisfaction, demotivation, moonlighting and turnover of skilled professionals and perceived to consequently negatively influence performance (i.e., patient satisfaction and waiting time).
Conclusions: There are considerable contextual challenges for SHRM in Ethiopian public hospitals. Hospital management can benefit from having more leeway and from exploiting it more effectively to improve actual and perceived strategic human resource management practices. Adoption of commitment based practices, in addition to mandatory control oriented practices can help to motivate and retain health care professionals and consequently improve outcomes.
The federal state Ethiopia currently comprises eleven regional states and two city administrations ( 1 ). Ethiopia ranges 174th out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index 2017 ( 2 ) and its health system faces severe challenges, even in comparison to other sub-Saharan countries ( 3 ). The health work force lacks the numbers and skills to meet the need of the population of ~120 million ( 4 ) and deliver the desired outcomes for patients ( 5 ).
Ethiopian public hospitals play a pivotal role in the struggle to deliver the desired patient outcomes, in part because of the persistent human resources crisis. In cognizance of the human resource shortages, the Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) devised and implemented health reforms by educating and allocating larger numbers of skilled health professionals ( 3 , 6 ). For instance, the reforms intend to increase minimum staffing standards for various health facilities including hospitals from well below 200.000 to 230.794 by 2020 and 346.649 by 2025. In addition, the country health human resources strategy sets a vision for “well qualified, committed, compassionate, respectful and caring health workers” ( 6 ). This lead to an urgent call to develop a Human Resources for Health (HRH) strategy by healthcare organizations that fosters a healthy, committed and respectful workforce, addresses skills gaps, motivation, satisfaction, turnover, and incentives and thereby improve patient outcomes ( 3 ).
Unfortunately, the reforms have struggled to deliver improvements on pre-set employee outcomes (such as job satisfaction), hospital performance (such as waiting times), and patient outcomes (such as patient satisfaction) ( 7 ). This manuscript analyses these struggles through a strategic human resource management (SHRM) lens, as further motivated and detailed below.
Strategic HRM has received considerable attention in recent decades because of its importance for organizational success ( 8 , 9 ). It entails a long term, coherent, plan for employees to be hired, managed, motivated, skilled and developed with the intention of achieving the organization's goals ( 8 – 11 ). As no single HRM practice is able to achieve all organizational goals, multiple HRM practices tailored to the specific organization are needed. In practice, there may however be considerable differences between the intended HRM practices, the actually implemented HRM practices, and the HRM practices as perceived by employees ( 12 ). The first difference arises when bundles of HRM practices implemented by management don't match the original intentions. Subsequently, the experiences and perceptions of employees may again be different, as evidence by a variety of studies ( 13 – 15 ). Ultimately, these perceived HRM practices determine employee outcomes and organizational outcomes in general ( 16 ).
The right-hand side of the Contextual SHRM Framework (see Figure 1 ) provides an additional perspective capturing how SHRM relates to employee outcomes (e.g., commitment, motivation, retention, presence, satisfaction) and (subsequently) to organizational and patient outcomes. Paauwe's SHRM framework synthesizes various other strategic HRM frameworks and has formed the basis for various studies on SHRM [see e.g., ( 17 , 18 )]. This study builds on this framework and literature and complements a companion study that focuses on the contextual factors for Ethiopian public hospitals using the (the left-hand side of) the same framework ( 19 ).
Figure 1 . SHRM framework, based on the contextually-based HR theory ( 14 ).
The framework can serve to explain the difficulties Ethiopian public hospitals experience to improve HRM outcomes, and subsequently organizational outcomes and patient outcomes ( 14 ). It guided our study to analyze how the SHRM practices adopted by Ethiopian public hospitals influence employee outcomes, organizational outcomes, and patient outcomes. Our research questions regarding Ethiopian public hospitals therefore are (a) how does SHRM evolve in Ethiopian public hospitals, (b) how do HRM practices influence employee outcomes, and (c) how do the resulting employee outcomes relate to organizational and patient outcomes?
Materials and methods
A qualitative study design was used to address the explorative research aim and conducted through structured interviews with respondents from public hospitals in Ethiopia. The interview structure was derived from the complete Contextual SHRM framework by Paauwe, which consist of the Context part (left side) and the SHRM part (right side) (see Figure 1 ). Our research findings on the influence of the contextual factors on strategic HRM have been published separately (20 = 24). The present paper focuses on the SHRM part of the framework, referring to the relationship between HRM and Performance. Both studies have used the same methods.
We selected 15 hospitals by purposive sampling. We aimed to select public hospitals that are representative for the Ethiopian public setting. We thus approached a number of hospitals that differed in hospital level (i.e., general, teaching, specialized, primary), geographical setting (i.e., regional big towns, regional and rural provincial settings, city government of Addis Ababa), and governance (i.e., federal and regional level governments). Table 1 provides details of all the participating hospitals. Data were collected between March and September of 2019.
Table 1 . Hospital characteristics of participating hospitals.
Interviews were conducted with purposively selected respondents who fulfill different positions and are knowledgeable of HRM practices and outcomes.
Our aim was to interview the executive board member responsible for HRM and the head of the HRM department of each hospital. In case these respondents were not available, we tried to interview alternative respondents with the corresponding responsibilities (such as HR directors of health bureaus). We are not aware of any unwillingness to participate among the approached respondents. In total, we were able to interview 19 respondents. Table 2 shows the respondents' characteristics.
Table 2 . Respondents characteristics interview.
After completing the individual interviews, we conducted four Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with 38 participants in total. These discussions followed the same topic list as the individual interviews and served to triangulate, validate and clarify especially the line management and employee perceptions. The focus groups procedure and FGD guides are presented in Appendix 4 under Supplementary Data for further insights. The participants of the FGDs (details presented in Table 3 ) were clinical staff, coordinators, and line managers for nurses, physicians and of quality and planning departments.
Table 3 . Focus Group Discussion participants characteristics.
The topic list and structured interview guideline (presented in Appendix 1 ) was based on document analysis of FMOH Regulatory documents/ policies, Hospital Reform Manuals/Guidelines/Requirements, Health Account and National HRH strategic Plan ( 6 , 20 – 22 ) and on Paauwe's framework ( 14 ). The interview guideline was piloted in three Ethiopian hospitals by the first and second authors and subsequently revised.
All interviews and FGDs were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim after ensuring (written) consent from all respondents. The transcripts were analyzed using ATLAS.ti 8 to conduct a thematic analysis ( 23 ). The analysis followed the following steps, in which all authors were involved:
Step 1 The authors familiarized themselves with the data by (re) reading transcripts and identifying essences and patterns of meaning, issues of potential interests.
Step 2 An initial coding scheme was developed to generate topics of interest. These initial codes were identified following a deductive coding approach based on the Contextual SHRM framework.
Step 3 We verified whether the initial list of codes covered the key elements of the framework and resolved any gaps.
Step 4 Broader code groups were created for related codes. Sub-groups were created for code groups with large number and variety of codes. The researchers remained open for codes that inductively emerged from the data and were not based on the Contextual SHRM framework (e.g., poverty, moonlighting).
Step 5 Code groups were combined into agreed broader themes which were based on similarities and (visualized) linkages in data and on the framework.
Step 6 The final themes were analyzed and synthesized into results as presented below.
The research design and interview protocol received ethical approval (Approval NO. EPHI-IRB-131-2018, Date: 31 Dec 2018) from the Ethiopian Public Health Institute. All interviews and group discussions were recorded following the protocol, after respondents have given their explicit informed consent.
The strong governmental impact on SHRM
The Ethiopian government tightly regulates human resource management in Ethiopian public hospitals. This tight regulation for instance takes shape through the mandatory HRM checklist. The extensive government regulatory requirements elaborate the guidelines in hundreds of pages [e.g., ( 20 , 21 ) 1 ] addressing topics such as job descriptions for every position, regular satisfaction surveys, documentation of staff files, and policies and procedures for performance appraisal and feedback, recruitment, promotion and transfer, and for occupational health and safety policies. Moreover, the corresponding hospital policies must be compliant with federal policies thus further strengthening the control of federal government over human resource management.
Governmental regulations were the main institutional mechanism in place. These regulations also emphasized human resources and were perceived to tightly regulate employee numbers, salaries, and employment arrangements at detailed levels. These regulations were perceived to restrict the autonomy of hospitals regarding SHRM. Regulation-induced differences in allowances and external employment arrangements were among the main concerns of respondents.
All respondents mentioned that government regulations and control are very tight and leave little room for organizational specific SHRM other than to comply. For instance, some respondents mentioned having to spend much time and energy on mandatory HRM policies and practices for certain group of professionals as newly introduced by the central government.
“…the hospital is implementing the newly introduced TID HR strategy for nurses only [with the] working schedule apportioned into three [shifts], each eight working hours within 24 hours range, which is not positively regarded by nurses as such referential / discriminatory treatment limits their right to claim for allowance incentives (FG4).”
Especially relatively poorly resourced rural hospitals reported difficulties to comply with all mandatory practices.
“Our hospital is not supported with digital technology for controlling staffpresence/absenteeism, moonlighting and payrolls… so we are using paper system ofattendance control that require all staff sign attendance form twice per day rather than using finger print scanner and not yet implementing technology based pay through electronic banking system (R17).”
“ Though the hospital reform guideline requires accurate documentation of staff file, ourhospital is yet to implement functional HRIs system for staff, due to less attention to invest on skills based training for existing staff on this new technology from regional government. The hospital is implementing tedious /laborious and inefficient staff file documentation HR practices (R13).”
Within this context of government prescribed HRM practices, the HR departments reported to experience difficulties because of lack of support by the government, senior management, or both. For instance, some respondents viewed that the HR policy set by the government required skills and authority of HR directors and department heads that were lacking in reality:
“We are facing conflicting HRM systems in this hospital because HR manager and staff inthe department are not properly trained and lacking HR qualifications. The government knows this as it is repeatedly reported to the ministry but no attention [is] given to find solution for this concern… (R4).”
“…[the] actual authority of [the] HR department manager in this hospital is against what is expected from him as per the hospital reform guideline which gives power and responsibility to practice all HR activities in managing workforce issues and support improving staff motivation and wellbeing. This is the most difficult HR practice as the managers—even in many public hospitals where I met and share experiences with HR managers during annual health sector performance review meetings organized by the ministry—lack the power to influence top leadership (R12).”
Employees and line managers participating in the focus group discussion perceived that the implementation of governmental HR policies may not match the intentions.
“ Unpleasant perceptions… toward actual HR practices that are unfairly implemented including allowances, salary increment …. Which dissatisfies them and [is] contributing to poor engagement, commitment or dedication to perform (FG3).”
In addition, governmental decisions are perceived to prohibit the implementation of the intended strategic HRM plans agreed between government and the hospital in annual plans. For instance, respondents mentioned
“After scrutinizing annual staffing forecasts for all departments and approval from ourhospital management, my hospital only hires 30% of the corporate HR Plan submitted tothe ministry of health. This is a major cause for shortages in skills and staff and ultimately hampering well being and hospital performance (R4).”
“Organizational level HR planning/ forecasting [submitted to the Ministry] from alldepartments is just political motive of making final decision by central government on allallocations of workforce, on every salary increase. With a rationale of managing scarcityor budgetary shortage, the hospital never accomplishes its HR planning… (R1).”
Hospital initiated HRM practices
While the HRM activities of hospitals were clearly dominated by following governmental regulations, they also implemented additional self-selected (bundles of) practices. We now first describe some commonly implemented practices and then some uniquely implemented practices.
Several hospitals have for instance implemented motivation-enhancing bundles in which financial and non-financial HR practices are combined. These included ability-and opportunity enhancing HR practices, such as provisioning of on-the-job skills training and facilitating promotion opportunities for well performing staff. Some respondents perceive that employee satisfaction may have benefited from implementing such bundles:
“ …as a result of implementing HR bundles of practices, the overall staff satisfaction inour hospital improved from 75 to 90% in 2018 and 2019, respectively, the positive change is over and above the policy intention (R15).”
Other respondents mention the importance of bundling financial HRM practices with leadership/management support for motivation and satisfaction.
“ Even if financial issues like wages and allowances are very critical, providing financialincentives alone may not satisfy workforce. Combining financial and non-financialstimuli like leadership support are key to address workload and life condition inducedstresses, burnout and psychological contract to improve employee satisfaction, performance and contribute to organizational outcomes (R10).”
Among the uniquely implemented HRM practices are free transportation to and from work, free medical care, a supermarket for staff on the hospital premises with fair prices, and a café for staff. Additionally, there were purely non-financial practices such as dedicated staff recognition days, provisioning of free training programs, and certificates of appreciation (see Appendix 3 ). One of the remote rural hospitals reported to operate a flexible working arrangement schedule for staff to accommodate the harsh local climate, working in the early morning and in the late afternoon.
The majority of the studied hospitals mentioned job satisfaction and organizational commitment as important HRM outcomes. Job satisfaction rates ranged from 28 to 90% over the studied hospitals (see Table 4 ), many of which appeared to struggle with poor motivation and low satisfaction among the workforce. In addition, respondents reported low commitment, unhappiness, absenteeism, and to be looking for second jobs in the private sector to supplement the low salary (moonlighting) and high turnover.
Table 4 . Hospital performance measures from HMIS (Sept 2019).
In addition to the financial and regulatory reasons mentioned above, many respondents attributed the poor HRM outcomes to the poor working conditions and organizational climate. More specifically, the government and senior management were commonly perceived to pay insufficient attention to job dissatisfaction and commitment issues. Some respondents attribute this to “ …lack of adequate awareness and commitment toward the importance and impact on the behavior and performance of workforce (R16).”
Respondents share the belief that other employee outcomes such as strong intentions to leave, frequent absenteeism and moonlighting are also driven by poor HRM practices in general and particularly mention the lack of fairness and autonomy.
“ Lack of effective HR strategy/practice to motivate staff and retain them in their workcausing moonlighting and intention for turnover that ultimately [negatively) affectingorganizational capability of efficiency and effectiveness in service provision and healthoutcomes (FG2).”
The views expressed in this statement also position employee outcomes as a determinant of hospital performance and patient outcomes. Other respondents further lengthened this causal chain backwards to HRM practices:
“ … ineffective HRM practice of giving less attention to HR issues, and leadership incompetence (R7), … caused low HRM outcomes [e.g., dissatisfaction, demotivation] and organizational productivity in service delivery and health outcomes including patient satisfaction and waiting time (R14) .”
Table 4 and the corresponding Figures 2 , 3 provide a brief descriptive analysis of data which is collected mandatorily and obtained from respondents' hospital information management systems. Together, they provide some quantitative support for the proposition that higher employee satisfaction is associated with shorter patient waiting time and higher patient satisfaction. However, this is not a conclusive link as patient satisfaction is mostly quite high, even when employee satisfaction is low.
Figure 2 . Employee satisfaction vs. patient satisfaction.
Figure 3 . Employee satisfaction vs. waiting time.
Patient satisfaction was frequently considered as a patient outcome and is typically reported annually. It has been around 80 percent for ten out of the twelve hospitals reporting patient satisfaction scores, whereas the other two score between 50 and 60 percent. Patient satisfaction was also linked to employee satisfaction and HRM practices by respondents. It was positively associated with “leadership competence and workforce commitment” (R1) and with “training” and “employee outcomes” (R7). Regarding the link between HR systems in the studied hospitals and outcomes, some respondents framed this negatively by stating that the poor work conditions, insufficient financial incentives and compensation negatively impact employee outcomes and subsequently patient outcomes, as would be supported by Figure 2 .
“ Employee well-being is threatened due to poor attention by policy makers given forHRM. Even if workforce always requesting for well being yet government HR strategy and policy lacks these, the end result has a negative impact on patient outcomes and hospital performance (R12) .”
Other respondents are of the opinion that patient satisfaction is held up by staff despite HRM practices: “ Surprisingly employees are committed to the patients regardless of the poor conditions with low wages, discriminatory allowances (FG3).”
Lastly, some respondents link the hospital and patient outcomes back to the regulations and perceive the regulations to fail the goals they are intended to achieve:
“ The hospital is unable to effectively and efficiently deliver quality services due to factors like health regulation induced negative influences on workforce motivation (FG3)…. Policy and regulatory framework on HRM and political force induced budget shortage (R2).”
The root causes for the challenges to improve patient outcomes are even sought outside of the context of governmental heath policy, i.e., in the broader societal context: “ poor economic development/ poverty situation (are) hindering hospitals to provide standard healthcare and patient outcomes (R3).”
Guided by the Contextual SHRM framework of Paauwe ( 14 , 24 ) our study sheds light on how HRM system generate employee outcomes and influence organizational and patient outcomes in Ethiopian public hospitals.
Pertaining to the strong government impact on SHRM [see also ( 20 )], our findings provide evidence on how the government tightly regulates HRM in the public hospitals. The government uses the tight regulation and enforcement as instruments to shape the intended HRM that leave hospitals little leeway to intend otherwise and build tailored and distinguishing HRM systems.
Nevertheless, we find that actual HRM practices implemented by managers may deviate from the intended HRM practices because the government has difficulties to provide the financial resources, skilled health professionals, and workforce as specified in agreed annual budgets. Some hospitals are more successful than others in controlling the threatening gaps between intentions and implementation, e.g., by diminishing the shortages, possibly through their political connections.
Differences between intended and actual HR practices have been previously reported in other settings ( 12 , 15 ). In previous work, the differences often originated at lower management echelons, e.g., through line managers interpretation and implementation of intended HR practices ( 25 , 26 ). In our study, by contrast, we find that the differences arise at higher management levels as described above. Lower management level mostly restricted themselves to compliant implementation and appeared to deviate only in case hospitals failed to fill their positions with qualified staff. Some studies [e.g., ( 27 , 28 )] suggest that intended, implemented, and perceived HR practices must be aligned in order to lead to the desired outcomes. Communication by management is important to this purpose, as it plays a moderating role in the relationship between intended and perceived HR practices.
Only a few Ethiopian hospitals managed to implement HRM practices beyond the struggle with mandatory HRM practices. In these exceptional cases, hospital leadership appreciated and utilized the little existing leeway to append intended HR practices locally and implement actual HR practices that addressed the needs of the workforce. Such practices could take the form of providing subsidized supermarkets for staff, transportation to reduce the cost of commuting, or free health services. They also included skills and opportunity enhancing practices, such as free training and nomination for promotion ( 29 – 31 ). Overall however, our findings suggest that the HR systems of Ethiopian public hospitals tend to extend the control orientation of the government regulations ( 6 , 20 , 21 ) and hardly adopt commitment-based practices, as they are more commonly encountered in Western public hospitals ( 32 , 33 ). The few successful examples suggest that there is more leeway for organizational level HR than many Ethiopian public hospitals utilize.
The Ethiopian public hospitals which leveraged their leeway mostly did so by providing non-financial arrangement to attract and retain employees, such as flexible working arrangements, training programs and forms of recognition of achievement. These findings from resource constraint public hospitals in Ethiopia confirm previous research from other contexts showing that innovative HR practices often focus on non-financial HR practices [e.g., ( 34 – 38 )]. The limited uptake may be explained by the perception that financial arrangements are the main priority because of the financial nature of the most important needs of the workforce.
Regarding the perceived HRM practices, our findings indicate that the government motivations to allocate scarce human and financial resources over the health system serving a population of 120 million are recognized and viewed as legitimate. However, the resulting regulations and intended HR practices are partially perceived as unfair and demotivating. These perceptions apply even stronger to the actually implemented HR practices in cases where the implementation of governmental HR policies is viewed to deviate unfairly and in a demotivating manner from the intended HRM of the regulations. This holds particularly true for the financial arrangements, such as salary and other benefits, and opportunities provided for moonlighting. Such negative perceptions of HR practices are exacerbated by perceived incompetence of hospital management and HRM department and inequitable decisions made at hospital level. Thus, the perceived HRM leads to poor employee outcomes such as poor job satisfaction, absenteeism, and high turnover. These poor employee outcomes in turn are perceived to negatively impact other outcomes envisioned to be obtained by the intended HR practices as enforced by the tight government regulations. These mechanisms appear to apply regardless of hospital size, level, location or governance. The thus found differences between perceived HRM outcomes on the one hand and intended HRM outcomes on the other hand have been previously reported [e.g., ( 12 , 16 , 26 )].
As the perceived HRM practices appear to cause demotivation, absenteeism, and turnover, one might expect these perceptions to subsequently diminish outcomes important for patients such as waiting times and patient satisfaction ( 36 – 39 ). While our findings suggest that employee satisfaction is correlated with less waiting times, we have not found similar perceptions from all respondents on the relations between employee satisfaction to patient satisfaction. Perhaps this is due to mechanisms neutralizing the negative impacts of demotivation, absenteeism and turnover on patient outcomes. Indeed, we have found that patient outcomes provide motivation and purpose and promote employee outcomes, in a direction opposite to the logic of the chain of causality of the SHRM model and the government regulations. These findings support previous research suggesting that the intrinsic motivation of health professionals to serve patients and their professional logic effectively counters external motivators such as the regulations and financial incentives of the management logic ( 39 , 40 ). An alternative explanation is that patient satisfaction is determined by the perceived service delivery in relation to their expectations toward quality of healthcare ( 41 – 43 ). The legacy of poor performance will then have resulted in low expectations which are easy to meet ( 42 – 44 ), regardless of employee satisfaction.
Based on our analysis, the following policy recommendations may serve the government and hospitals to address HRM challenges found to negatively influence employee and patient outcomes.
1. The government can provide a supporting context for hospitals by providing sufficient funding and ensuring capable hospital managers and sufficient HR personnel to implement intended HR practices correctly and fairly. However, for implemented HR practices to lead to the desired outcomes, it is important that they are perceived in the same way as intended. As management communication plays a moderating role in the relationship between intended and implemented, but also between implemented and perceived HR practices, the government support could therefore include corresponding guidelines on selection and training of managers.
2. By loosening the current tight and centralized government regulations, the government would increase leeway for hospitals to adopt commitment-based approaches and address the needs of their workforce. This would imply enhanced autonomy for hospitals to manage and ensure how the HRM strategy addresses the needs of workforce. This requires a new agency between government and hospitals.
3. Hospital senior management can identify and utilize more leeway for SHRM and adapt internally aligned ability-, motivation-, and opportunity- enhancing HR bundles in their organization.
4. Senior management can in turn empower HR management and line management, make and grant time to clarify HR practices and their importance.
5. Engagement and involvement of professionals in SHRM may serve to close gaps between the management logic of tight control oriented HRM system/strategy and professional logics (to provide quality services) early on: in the intended HR designs. In addition, perceived HR practices can also be shaped by co-workers (next to managers), which requires facilitating interaction among employees.
Strength and limitations of the study
This study includes a large and varied sample of Ethiopian hospitals covering various geographic locations, rural and urban settings, and central and regional governments. The study engaged various respondents, ranging from experienced administrators and HR managers to team leaders and professionals. The triangulation was further reinforced by using combination of study design entailing interviews, focus groups, and document analysis.
A first limitation of our study is caused by the regional conflicts within Ethiopia that formed delays and restricted travels to the regions Oromia and SNNPR. Although we did collect data in these regions, some factors and mechanisms may have been emphasized less and others more due to the regional conflicts during the data collection. Likewise, the situations and dynamics in Ethiopia have impacted the actual data collection process and lead the researchers to comply with the approved research protocol, rather than consider collection of additional data after verifying data saturation. Hence, we may have missed some factors and aspects of mechanisms, and our study may not be generalizable to all hospitals in the dynamic setting of Ethiopia. Secondly, employee views were not collected through personal interviews but through FGDs. Therefore, the views and perceptions of people on the work floor may be articulated less explicitly in the findings. Future studies may more explicitly explore the employee perceptions of HR practices and outcomes. Thirdly, the study exclusively focused on public hospitals in Ethiopia. Therefore, the generalizability to the private hospitals and other healthcare settings in Ethiopia and beyond may be limited.
Data availability statement
The datasets presented in this study can be found in online repositories. The names of the repository/repositories and accession number(s) can be found in the article/ Supplementary material .
The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (Approval No. EPHI-IRB-131-2018, Date: 31 Dec 2018). The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.
All authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for publication.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.
The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2022.915317/full#supplementary-material
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Keywords: Ethiopian public hospitals, strategic human resource management, employee outcomes, performance, hospital reform
Citation: Gile PP, van de Klundert J and Buljac-Samardzic M (2022) Strategic human resource management and performance in public hospitals in Ethiopia. Front. Public Health 10:915317. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.915317
Received: 26 May 2022; Accepted: 06 October 2022; Published: 20 October 2022.
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*Correspondence: Philipos Petros Gile, firstname.lastname@example.org