June 2022 – The January 2022 jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics told a familiar story. The healthcare sector, just behind dining and hospitality, had the most job openings of any industry in the country. More than 1.9 million jobs were available in the healthcare and social support sectors in January, nearly identical to December 2021, but more than 700,000 higher than the previous year.
These findings are not surprising with 52% of healthcare workers reporting feeling burned out, according to a February 2022 poll from USA Today–Ipsos. While 80% of workers were at least somewhat satisfied with their job, the number reporting that they were “hopeful” about going to work dropped from 76% in 2021 to 59% in 2022; “optimistic” also dropped from 67% to 56%.
Given such concerning trends, attracting and retaining healthcare team members both on the clinical and administrative sides is more daunting than ever before. While competitive pay and benefits are a given for any health system, building and retaining a truly engaged and loyal workforce requires cultural change. Creating a culture centered around the needs and achievements of the workforce will yield retention, and, as a result, improved experiences and outcomes for patients. In greater detail, the following are five tips for healthcare leaders on attracting and retaining an engaged staff.
- Cultivate Organizational Resilience
The pandemic significantly disrupted health system operations and has contributed to workforce stress and resignations, which negatively impacted the culture. Some hospitals, however, had built-in organizational resilience that enabled them to withstand the historic disruption better than others.
According to the Harvard Business Review, cultivating organizational resilience involves three key elements:
- Routine. Maintaining standardized processes help staff feel grounded and stable. Although COVID-19 forced health systems to adjust those processes, staying close to the established workflows gives staff reliable guidelines to follow, offering a sense of control and predictability in what could seem chaotic and uncertain.
- Simple Rules. Having simple, universally adopted rules that all staff follow can be calming and reassuring. These rules also enable decision-making to be more efficient and offload the cognitive burden that contributes to clinician stress and burnout.
- Improvisation. In the face of a public health emergency, routines and rules must be adjusted. Empowering staff to derive creative solutions to solve new problems is effective at building organizational resilience. Furthermore, if the improvisation is frontline-clinician staff-led, it has a higher chance of adoption due to the inherent camaraderie between clinicians during this shared experience.
Above all, leadership needs to instill resilience by showing a commitment to provider and staff welfare and providing meaningful emotional support to them during the post-pandemic transitions.
- Culture Over Messaging
Clinician burnout existed well before COVID-19, but so did the troubling trend of threats and violence against frontline healthcare workers. It has become so severe in some locations that Warner Thomas, president and CEO of New Orleans-based Ochsner Health, issued a statement contending that such acts should be considered a felony.
Likewise, Renown Health in Reno, Nevada collaborated with the American Hospital Association and International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety on a guide for healthcare leaders to create a safer workplace.
Such statements and actions are crucial for making staff feel valued and will encourage retention, even during the toughest of times.
- Provide Training Opportunities
Along with demonstrating leadership’s support of staff, health systems should offer training opportunities to clinicians and other team members seeking to advance or change their careers. For example, as health systems create specialty centers for cardiovascular, cancer, or other complex conditions, the clinicians who deliver care in these units would benefit from advanced educational opportunities about the unique demands and workflows associated with the patient population. While many nurses have received such training before, it may have been several years ago, and those skills have not been utilized since. Staff may not always be willing to admit they need to refresh or enhance their abilities, so proactively offering these training opportunities will likely be widely appreciated.
- Enhance Benefits
Health systems that actively encourage staff to expand their skill set can foster engagement and loyalty, especially if those new skills are associated with a pay increase, promotion, or other benefits. When considering benefits, however, leaders should query staff to learn about less common features that would help lower their stress levels and make their lives easier. For example, many clinicians struggle to find childcare, which adds to scheduling difficulties and distractions during their shift. That is why many leading health systems offer on-site childcare for clinicians, which not only simplifies this crucial aspect of life for families, but also enables staff to visit their children during the day, thus lightening their mood and reducing stress.
- Implement Technology
Health systems cannot control the spread of COVID-19, patients’ behaviors, or the advancing age of their workforce, which is leading to inevitable retirements. That is why they need to concentrate on things they can control: pay and benefits, policies and procedures to protect patient and staff safety, and the tools they provide to staff to execute their jobs effectively. Eliminating the stress associated with inefficient, time-consuming workflows, siloed data, and disconnected communication tools can significantly reduce feelings of job-associated frustration and burnout. Although it has been more than 10 years since federal legislation was passed that led to the widespread adoption of electronic health records, nearly one-third of healthcare workers report frustration with technology in their hospital three to five times a week, which researchers found was associated with higher emotional exhaustion scores.
Patient navigation throughout the continuum of care is often stressful for clinicians and patients as well. Transferring a patient from a community hospital for admission to a tertiary care center and then to an appropriate post-acute care facility after discharge can be rife with inefficiencies, disconnected paper-driven processes, and wasted time. This leads to clinicians on the floor being distracted by phone calls, follow-ups, coordinating consultations, faxing documents, and arranging transportation. Instead, they could be devoting that time and attention to patients.
An integrated, interoperable platform to unite and centralize these processes would alleviate these burdens. Combining it with a dedicated, clinician-driven operational unit devoted to care access and orchestration would further off-load these duties from clinicians. As a result, clinicians’ non-patient-facing care duties are lightened, as are feelings of stress and burnout.
A Multi-Faceted Solution
There is no silver bullet for turning around the historic workforce resource challenges health systems now face. However, by combining these recommendations, healthcare leaders can improve clinician’s experience on the job and cultivate engagement and loyalty. By improving their experience, health systems can improve patients’ and families’ experiences and outcomes as well.
About the Author
Ben Sawyer is Vice President of Market Development for ABOUT, which provides proven technology and consulting solutions that help hospital systems grow with resilience, drive clinician effectiveness, and improve patient outcomes by orchestrating patient access to the next optimal care setting. He oversees the thought leadership and advisory council programs, provides strategic market insights across the organization, and manages strategic relationships with various market analyst firms. Ben has over 35 years of healthcare industry experience, starting his career as a physical therapist specializing in sports medicine and orthopedics. After five years of specialty work, he achieved his clinical specialist certification in orthopedics. Subsequently, he secured his MBA and moved into hospital administration, taking on leadership roles that included oversight of enterprise-wide performance and quality improvement. He then went on to serve as the Executive Vice President of Care Logistics for 12 years and Chief Executive Officer of SOAR Vision Group for five years before joining ABOUT.