At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel doctors and nurses were paid premium wages to temporarily work at facilities in need. For the existing staff, the help was welcome, but wages were contentious. As desperate times waned, travel professionals and their high salaries may have tapered off, but many institutions are still seeing the fallout of a competitive market in healthcare.
The exodus from healthcare has been felt by institutions small and large. In 2021 reports showed 30% of healthcare workers either quit their jobs or were laid off. While the pandemic caused massive burnout and left many healthcare professionals rethinking their career, the remainder of staff were left to manage in their absence.
Temporary staff became a double-edged sword. The help was sorely needed, but the wages provided became a source of resentment. For many, the temptation to leave their permanent position for travel-pay was too great. For others, remaining in their position may have been a frustrating additional contributor to job burnout.
As travel-provider need waned, a scarcity of talent brought new challenges for healthcare recruiters. They needed to offer higher than normal wages, signing bonuses, and enhanced benefits just to maintain recruitment levels. For existing staff, these incentives created new resentments, causing staff to leave and the cycle to repeat.
Fortune reported in 2021 the average nurse’s wages increased by 4% in the first nine months of the year, higher than the two previous years. These unprecedented numbers are in response to nearly 20% churn in 2020. Signing bonuses alone for 2021 averaged $15,000 per hire.
Estimated as the highest level of nurse retirements ever recorded, 2020 hit healthcare facilities already struggling with staffing levels. Nursing societies predict another half million retirements in the coming year, leaving the US with a shortage of over one million.
For physicians, research published by Mayo Clinic Proceedings found 20% say they’ll likely leave their current practice within two years. Another third of doctors and healthcare professionals intend to reduce their work hours in the next year.
Recently the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the healthcare sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February of 2020. Facilities are facing unprecedented staffing challenges today that will likely continue into the foreseeable future.
Staunch the bleeding
Institutions are looking for creative solutions to stem the tide of staff loss. In one facility, the entire nursing staff was given a 10% increase to maintain staffing levels. That sweeping increase may not be feasible for most providers, but there are ways they can retain staff despite difficult conditions.
Keep an ear to the ground. Listen to employee concerns and complaints. You may not be able to reduce the salaries of those who were brought in at higher levels, but you may be able to offer tenured staff members additional benefits. More vacation or personal time can be a welcome incentive to stay; preferred shifts or hours may also be helpful.
When you can’t entice staff to stay, make sure exit interviews are performed and are in-depth. You’ll want to know exactly what the reason was for leaving — and if there is anything you can do to change the employee’s mind. You may not be ready to get into a bidding war with another facility, but consider the cost to recruit, hire and train a replacement. The additional hourly or annual wages may be a small price to pay in comparison.
If wages aren’t at issue, there’s an excellent chance burnout is. Consider offering the staff members a leave of absence, rather than accepting their resignation. These can give practitioners time to breathe — downtime to unwind from the two-year chaos and reaffirm their commitment to the work and the industry. Knowing they have a guaranteed job in three or six months can add to stress-reduction. That may help reduce the time off needed and help them return with a fresh point of view.
If they’re looking to move away from the day-to-day duties that have been so overwhelming, do you have any administrative, research or educator positions that might suit? Look for creative ways to maintain the staff member, even in a non-traditional role. They may find a new career path or may realize they’re better suited to their original calling. Either way, they’ll be your employee — rather than someone else’s.
If you can’t salvage the employee, look for patterns that need resolution and act upon them. If the only issue is financial and you can afford it, offer increases. If you can’t afford everyone, ask staff if time off or other benefits would be acceptable. If hours/shifts are the problem, work with administrators to find ways to give staff members more time away. Exiting employees are a wealth of information, so ask why they’re leaving and take action to reduce future churn.
Institutions are facing unprecedented challenges in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic. Maintaining staffing levels, a pre-pandemic issue for most facilities, has only become more difficult. The future will rely on creativity and flexibility for hospital recruiters.