The Great Resignation Hits Healthcare: Actions To Take

The pandemic has caused millions of U.S. healthcare workers to reevaluate their careers.

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Tens of millions of American workers who saw their lives and careers disrupted by the COVID pandemic took a step back to explore new working opportunities or even not work at all. Dubbed the Great Resignation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers quit their jobs at a record pace of nearly 4 million per month in 2021, and if anything, the employment exodus is only accelerating in 2022 with 4.5 million people quitting in March and an additional 4.4 million in April.

Not surprisingly, healthcare ranks among the industries hit the hardest by the sudden absence of workers. Thanks largely to the continuing strain of the pandemic, the industry has been losing more than 500,000 employees per month in 2022, rivaling employment losses in lower-wage industries like retail and food service. And just as with the broader population, the problem isn't going away.

According to research by Elsevier Health, up to 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their positions by 2025, and an astonishing 90% of nurses responding to a November 2021 Hospital IQ survey report they are considering leaving within the next year.

I've previously discussed some of the reasons for healthcare workers leaving the industry, including burnout and an increasingly scared and mistrustful public. But there are actions we can take, both individually as healthcare executives and as an industry, to reverse this concerning trend.

Acknowledge what healthcare personnel had just experienced and continues to experience.

While in many ways it feels like the worst of the pandemic has passed, the effects of that crisis persist, especially on the front lines in healthcare. A new study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that the trauma experienced by healthcare workers during COVID is comparable to that of military veterans in post-9/11 combat zones.

And while much of the country has moved on, short-staffed medical workers still struggle with supply shortages, new hot spots, and an increasingly mask-averse public. A good first step to retaining your staff is to understand what they are going through and redouble your efforts to support them.

Reimagine how work gets done.

The pandemic didn't create burnout within healthcare — it exacerbated it. The same Hospital IQ survey referenced earlier found that 72% of nurses reported experiencing burnout prior to the pandemic and for reasons within the hospitals' power to fix.

For example, 43% reported doing more tasks like cleaning units, procuring supplies and clerical duties due to a shortage of technicians. A top-down review of what staff does can reveal opportunities to help keep your staff from burning out and even save your facility money.

Reconsider what work needs to be done in person.

A major impetus for the Great Resignation outside of healthcare has been years of working from home. Employees who have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home find themselves reluctant to commute back to the office. Healthcare has been at the forefront of remote care through innovations such as telehealth.

According to a new article in Medical Economics, the percentage of practices engaging in remote patient monitoring is expected to jump from 57% to 76% in the next two years. The more choices and flexibility you give your staff in where and how they do their jobs, the more likely it is they'll stick with you.

Support legislation designed to address this crisis.

The Build Back Better Act proposed several pieces of legislation that could ease the burden on the healthcare system, and while the omnibus bill seems unlikely to pass through the Senate as-is, it's possible individual proposals could find their way into law.

For example, the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2021 could ease the shortage of physicians by removing caps on Medicare-funded residency slots imposed by Congress nearly 25 years ago. The Future Advancement of Academic Nursing Act would provide resources to increase nursing faculty and build up the pipeline of future nurses. The Opioid Workforce Act of 2021/Substance Use Disorder Workforce Act of 2021 would add 1,000 Medicare-funded training positions in approved residency programs in addiction medicine and psychiatry, while the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act would seek to address suicide, burnout and behavioral health disorders among healthcare professionals.

None of these on its own could replace the massive loss of healthcare talent resulting from the Great Resignation, but given that the current staffing crisis is likely to only increase, efforts like these should be championed by the entire industry.

I have one final suggestion I'd ask you to think about. In a recent HealthLeaders article Dr. Gail Gazelle, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University in Massachusetts and a master-certified coach for physicians, wrote how many healthcare professionals are "a little bitter" by the empty emails thanking them for their hard work, and that "Their thinking is, 'If you really cared about us, you'd come down and see what we're doing.' There's a sense that they're not being seen, that their efforts aren't being appreciated."

Like Gazelle, my advice is to personally be visible to your workers and truly commit. I always advocate for healthcare executives to schedule time to walk around their facilities, get to know their staff and patients, and see how the work of healthcare is done. Not only will it reinforce to you the vital role your organization plays, but it might also remind you that behind every number and statistic is a person providing an invaluable service for your organization and for your community.

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