Just as health systems are recovering from a surge of fall hospitalizations due to the Covid-19 delta variant, a new "variant of concern" has emerged: the omicron variant. While there is still much uncertainty around the transmissibility and severity of this variant, we've begun to map out the space of possibilities. Even during this uncertain time, one thing is true: clinical leaders should brace their organizations to accommodate yet another potential surge.
At the same time, health systems continue to struggle with severe staffing shortages due to increasing turnover and vacancies in all frontline positions, particularly nurses. Despite the many uncertainties that the omicron variant brings, one thing is clear: our already battered health care workforce will be put to the test yet again, even if only in terms of emotionally preparing for another surge.
So how can health care leaders help? We've curated a list of four key strategies to take right now to ensure immediate support for what lies ahead:
- Don't ease up on staff recruitment and retention.
While preparing operations for the omicron variant, health systems must continue to focus on efforts to stabilize the clinical workforce. Many clinical staff are burned out from 18 months of pandemic care; amidst increasing staffing shortages. While it may be tempting to shift your focus to preparing for a potential clinical surge, it is imperative to maintain continued efforts to stabilize your workforce and retain as many employees as possible through future uncertainty. Moreover, reassuring staff that recruitment and retention efforts are ongoing will help to ease fears of further burnout due to insufficient staffing levels.
- Communicate contingency plans to create—and staff—additional inpatient capacity before the crisis hits.
At this stage in the pandemic, preparing for an influx of hospitalizations may seem second nature. And yet, service line volumes and staffing gaps continue to shift daily, impacting an organization's ability to accommodate additional Covid-19 patients. Before you experience another surge, leaders should confirm plans to accommodate additional inpatient volume to their current staffing reality and widely communicate those plans to the frontline.
Transparency on how and when the organization will act to create capacity and cover staffing in critical units can reduce employee anxiety. Our profile of Baylor Scott and White Health's Covid-19 care team model is available as a reference point for team-based Covid-19 care.
- Make employee safety a top priority.
As preparations for a potential variant surge are launched, the need for employees to feel safe is non-negotiable. Core to employee safety includes adequate PPE, ventilators, and other related Covid-19 equipment available to protect employees from infection and mitigate their moral distress.
But more than that, leaders must double down on efforts to protect staff from any violence leveled against them by patients, families, or other community members. Across the country, health systems have seen an uptick in reports of patient violence against health care providers since the start of the pandemic. Verbal and physical abuse directed at staff by consumers may continue as the uncertainty of the latest variant unfolds amidst continued political polarization. If left unaddressed, violence and harassment against frontline clinicians may exacerbate existing shortages and burnout. Use our workplace violence resource library as a starting point to mitigate this violence before it occurs.
- Support your employees inside (and outside) the workplace.
Not only does each Covid-19 surge bring an immense workload to staff, it also creates additional stressors outside of work. Beyond aggressive efforts to hardwire resiliency support for employees in the work environment, leaders must prioritize strategies to address stressors outside of the workplace as well:
- Offering back-up child support;
- Issuing meal vouchers or other support for responsibilities outside of work; and,
- Offering flexible work options for those unable to maintain current schedules.
Parting thoughts—we are here to support you.
Navigating continued Covid-19 surges amid crippling staffing shortages remains an unprecedented leadership challenge. Regardless of how the omicron variant impacts the health care workforce, it is important to step back and consider how we can rely on lessons we've learned over the past two years. Lessons such as having candid conversations with staff, understanding the reasons why staff are leaving, employing strategies to stabilize the nursing workforce, and many more.
Please don't hesitate to reach out to us directly as you consider options for workforce stabilization despite the uncertainties of the pandemic. Please connect with our experts directly by submitting any requests for assistance to our Member Portal.
Together, we can move forward—doing our best to stay prepared, protected, an proactive.