Treating patients is equal parts challenging and rewarding, which is one of the reasons physical therapy is such a fulfilling profession. But if you’re noticing that your therapists’ motivation is lagging a bit, it’s important to understand why. Here are four reasons why physical therapists’ motivation can decrease, as well as steps you can take to make things better.  

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Their compensation is based solely on productivity.

The Problem

Nobody likes being reduced to a billing machine, and your conscientious, highly educated physical therapists will feel like their clinical reasoning and education are going to waste if all you care about is how many patients they see each day.

PTs choose this profession because we expect to enjoy careers in which we will be valued for our critical thinking skills, dedication to continued growth, integrity, and compassion. When our raises and bonuses are tied solely to how many patients we see per day—or worse, how many units we bill—we start to feel like cogs in a machine: easily replaced by someone less compassionate, experienced, or dedicated.

And when we start to feel expendable, our motivation plummets.

The Fix

Tie compensation to factors that go beyond productivity alone. For therapists who continually receive high marks on patient satisfaction or outcomes scales, consider awarding paycheck incentives, extra PTO, or gift cards. Offer raises and bonuses for milestones like obtaining advanced certifications, hosting revenue-generating seminars, or launching non-clinical projects like blogging or social media initiatives.

Nobody recognizes their efforts.

The Problem

Physical therapists are caring, empathetic souls. We also work extremely hard to meet patient satisfaction and productivity expectations, not to mention documentation demands. Anyone who has worked as a PT understands that our work goes far beyond diagnosing and treating physical dysfunctions.

But, while therapists tend to be humble, we’re still human. Just like anyone else, we like to be recognized and appreciated for our hard work. If our day-to-day existence involves caring for others, solving problems, ensuring defensible documentation, and de-escalating frustrated patients—just to name a few—recognition is certainly in order.

The problem is that clinic leaders often get so wrapped up in patient satisfaction, they forget to stop and consider therapist satisfaction. This is why so many clinic directors neglect to recognize therapists for milestones, achievements, and even day-to-day actions that help keep patients feeling happy with their care.

The Fix

Celebrate your therapists’ professional accomplishments! Baby showers are par for the course in the therapy world, but what about when your senior therapist obtains her OCS? Or what about when your front desk manager is accepted into a flex DPT program? Did your team stay late to crunch out a last-minute chart audit? Reward them with a nice dinner or a few hours of flex PTO. Appreciate and celebrate hard work, and your staff’s motivation will improve accordingly.

They have no variety or challenges—or too many!

The Problem

Some therapists are variety-seeking types. They enjoy patient care, but the monotony of seeing patients all day, every day can start to wear on them—even if they absolutely love what they do. If a variety-seeker is bored and feeling underutilized, her motivation will plummet.  

Conversely, some therapists really enjoy the predictability of a known patient-care schedule, and tasks outside of that schedule can feel burdensome. If someone craves stability and is tasked with program development or event planning, his motivation will take a nosedive.

The Fix

Understand what makes your employees tick, and give them opportunities to perform within a healthy work atmosphere. If you have someone who is always craving change, block out a few hours per week for her to organize marketing events or coordinate a course at your clinic. If a certain employee can’t stand marketing, don’t burden him with something he’s told you he hates—even if the clinic’s referrals are dropping. Instead, give him the option to conduct chart audits, take flex time, or pick up another therapist’s patients when that therapist wants to take a last-minute vacation.

Raises are not keeping up with cost of living increases or new-grad pay rates.

The Problem

I’ll never forget the time a coworker confided in me that she was making less than a new grad’s starting rate. A new grad had let his pay rate slip, and my coworker was horrified. We worked for a reputable hospital system, and my esteemed colleague had five—yes, five!—years of experience under her belt. She was constantly completing con-ed courses, taking on students, and attending conferences, but her pay rate indicated she was fresh out of school.

The Fix

Like it or not, employees share their salaries. It may be unfortunate, but it’s a fact. To get ahead of problems that can arise when this happens, take time once a year to research the industry standard pay for therapists in your area (including pay rates for various levels of experience). If it turns out that you’re underpaying your therapists, avoid the temptation to blame declining reimbursements. Instead, put your heads together with your therapy team and brainstorm ideas to generate additional income in your clinic. Can you host courses? Sell equipment? Offer telehealth services? When you pay your therapists what they’re worth—and provide pay increases for hard work—your therapists will remain motivated.

A Final Thought

Your staff comprises many different types of PTs, and each will have his or her own set of motivators. If you make the effort to communicate with your team and truly understand what will keep each therapist engaged, you’ll be able to create a cohesive, motivated staff.

Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a career development resource designed to help physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leverage their degrees in non-clinical ways.

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