Editor's note: This blog was updated on March 10, 2022
Recent months have proven that health care employers are not immune to the 'Great Resignation' sweeping the broader workforce:
- In America, 84% of providers report problems with nursing workforce coverage
- In Australia, the July labor recruitment index for medical practitioners is up 68% compared with pre-Covid levels
- And in the United Kingdom, 71% of NHS trusts report recruitment problems
As patient volumes in many jurisdictions approach pre-pandemic levels, employers desperately need to stabilize their workforce numbers without resorting to a bidding war that will collapse already strained budgets.
Recent Gallup data shows that, especially for millennials and Gen Z'ers, the single greatest criteria staff say that they look for in an employer is "my organization cares about employee well-being." That's why a dedicated focus on workforce well-being is non-negotiable.
The problem is that our traditional approach of boosting well-being in the workplace is no longer adequate—or realistic. The pandemic has essentially erased the already thin dividing line between work-life balance for health care workers.
Health care has become a 24/7 industry, and if employers are to effectively address workforce recovery, they have to take a 24/7 view of the problem. And that means addressing workforce well-being beyond the workplace.
The problem—and the solution—starts at the top
Our recent Health Care Leader Well-being Survey found that 48% of senior leaders have chosen NOT to take paid time off during the pandemic because they felt unable to disconnect effectively from work. We hear this not only from leaders, but across the entire workforce.
And it is this inability to disconnect that is actively undermining our workforce's ability to recharge. Only when employees see their leaders modeling how to disconnect from work will they feel comfortable in doing so themselves.
One example we've seen our members use to enable managers to disconnect is an after-hours escalation plan. Many parents, before they go on vacation, will leave a clear list of 'who to call for what purpose' when leaving children with a babysitter.
This is the exact same principle behind an after-hours escalation plan. The plan is a list of contacts arranged by 'emergency' scenario that clearly shows who can make decisions when any given leader is out of office. The best escalation plans help employees 'elevate' concerns without having to contact a manager outside of working hours.
For many leaders, the delegation required to create an effective after-hours escalation plan will be a new experience that might cause some degree of discomfort. That's to be expected. Effective delegation is a skillset that takes practice—often we hear from organizations that have implemented after-hours escalation plans that the hardest part is getting managers to NOT respond at home.
But only by actively role modeling the 'disconnect'—in effect, by role modeling that 24/7 accountability is not the same as 24/7 availability—can leaders hope to rebuild space for their employees to recharge outside of work.
Workforce physical recovery increasingly impacted by poor sleep
Health care employers need to take responsibility for whether their staff can disconnect effectively from work, but on an even more basic physical level, they also need to ensure staff are getting adequate sleep.
Chronic, widespread sleep deprivation, insomnia, and poor sleep hygiene among health care workers are perhaps health care's biggest open secret and evidence suggests that pandemic stress is exacerbating the situation. Health care employees need help with sleep, and what's more, they're likely to jump at the opportunity. A 2020 study found that a staggering 92% of nurses were receptive to receiving a sleep intervention.
Employers have increasingly been adopting a more proactive approach to addressing employee sleep hygiene. Some organizations have purchased workforce-wide access to sleep apps such as the Calm platform that provide music therapy, meditation, and mindfulness resources as part of benefits packages.
Others have emphasized the link between stress and poor sleep and offer stress-relief resources that can be accessed from home.
Employee well-being doesn't end at the lobby
Evidence from prior adverse events suggests that the pandemic recovery process, physically and emotionally, for health care workers will be a matter of years, not months.
This employee recovery process will only succeed if employers are willing to address the topic holistically—and that requires employers to take responsibility for employee well-being inside and outside the workplace.