How Henry Ford rehired 25% of nurses who left during the pandemic

Job flexibility is at the center of hospitals' and health systems' strategies to welcome back nurses who left during earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic — and some are seeing significant progress. 

As a priority for the year, Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, RN, the newest president of the American Nurses Association, would like to see hospitals make consistent efforts to reach out to nurses who left or took a break. 

"Nurses left during some very stressful times and very hard times and we need to welcome them back," Dr. Mensik Kennedy told Becker's in January. "I would like to see metrics of people who are coming back now into the profession after taking a break." 

About 2,000 nurses have left Detroit-based Henry Ford Health since 2020. Of those, 500 have returned.

"About 1 in 4 is actually coming back to us after they've gone off and either worked for travel agencies or tried something else," Eric Wallis, DNP, RN, chief nursing officer of Henry Ford Health, told Becker's

He credits that to offering nurses flexible opportunities and consistent outreach. Nursing leaders worked closely with Henry Ford Health's human resources team to design programs that would make it attractive for nurses to come back, whether through higher pay or the ability to work in different settings via the system's internal travel nurse program, Dr. Wallis said. The health system also created a new role, where nurses could choose to just work weekends.

Via a texting campaign, the health system contacts nurses who have left in the last six months on a monthly basis and asks if they are interested in coming back, as well as informing them on the flexible opportunities available. 

Most health systems Becker's spoke with were unable to share concrete numbers on how many nurses have returned to their organizations. 

"It seems like we are more focused and have better data on who's leaving than who's coming back," said Kristin Ramsey, MSN, RN, senior vice president of quality at Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial HealthCare. "We really have a ways to go into making sure that we have good data."

Many human resources systems are not able to identify and track individuals as former employees if they've been gone for a substantial amount of time, say a year or more, she said. Some nurses may also reenter the workforce with a different healthcare organization, which also clouds visibility into trends on their return to the workforce. 

Anecdotally, though, it appears nurses are returning. 

"As each week goes by, I'm shaking hands in orientation with folks that had left or maybe had gone part-time and realized they missed the work and calling of being a nurse," said Ms. Ramsey, who also serves as chief nurse executive of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Medical Group.

Northwestern has primarily relied on mass emails to stay in touch with nurses who've left the organization and alert them of opportunities to return. Many of these openings are for "knowledge worker" roles that are less physically intensive than bedside positions and come as the system embraces innovative nursing models, such as tele-ICU care and virtual nursing. 

"There might be an opportunity for those who left the marketplace because of the physicality of the work to find new and innovative ways to be nurses," Ms. Ramsey said. 

Like Henry Ford Health and Northwestern, USC Verdugo Hills Hospitals in Glendale, Calif., is working to keep communication lines open with nurses who left. Theresa Murphy, RN, MS, CENP, the hospital's chief nursing officer, is drafting a formal letter inviting those who left to return. 

In terms of flexibility, the hospital has piloted a weekender program where nurses who commit to working Friday through Sunday earn more, with the added benefit being that "nurses who don't like working weekends often can work less weekends and more weekdays because more of the weekend shifts are covered," Ms. Murphy said. The hospital also offers a number of fixed-term positions for nurses who don't want a full-time permanent position, with the option for permanent employment once the term is up. 

Another component of hospitals' strategies to welcome nurses back has been expressing empathy and maintaining positive relationships with teammates who left, leaders told Becker's.

"Unfortunately, too often, when people leave an organization, folks want to view that as a negative [or that] this person is making a mistake," said Dr. Wallis of Henry Ford Health. "We tried very hard … to be understanding of where people were coming from and make sure that they knew the door was always open for them to come back to us." 

Ms. Murphy said it's imperative nurses feel no ill will about their initial departure from managers and unit supervisors. If they do, they will likely be more hesitant or embarrassed to come back.  

"We respect that individuals make decisions that are in the best interest of themselves and their families and that often leaving the organization provides new perspectives when the nurse returns," she said. "These can be great opportunities for growth. So, we celebrate nurses who come back to us."

Hospitals' efforts to provide flexibility and creative nursing roles extend beyond the aim of simply re-attracting former employees. These strategies point to the growing acknowledgement that hospitals need to wholeheartedly embrace creative nurse staffing solutions to recruit and retain these crucial caregivers amid the worsening nurse shortage. 

"We have to be more forward-thinking about creating opportunities for the nursing workforce to balance both their life and their professional life," Ms. Ramsey said. "And I think that will be the challenge of leaders as we go forward."

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