Reimagining the healthcare workforce after COVID-19

COVID-19 is surging again across the country, and frontline healthcare professionals in hotspots are facing overwhelming caseloads. The extreme and extended pressures of the pandemic will leave behind long-term changes to our workplace. Employers must now apply what we've learned to help shape the future by creating the best possible experience for our workforce, just as we do for patients.

Clinicians are exhausted. Only 43 percent of registered nurses remain in bedside care. Many have left nursing altogether. Administrative staff and healthcare leadership are also struggling, and even those at executive levels have broken down under such enormous strain. During last fall's surge, I redeployed to Banner Desert, home to Arizona's busiest emergency department, to escort family members to say their last goodbyes to loved ones. I saw firsthand the compassion of our teams, and that experience helped shape our further response to the pandemic.

We are witnessing a talent war on multiple fronts. Many nurses have become traveling nurses, going where demand and compensation are strongest. Other industries are actively recruiting healthcare leaders, having seen the skills they displayed in carrying their organizations through the pandemic under extreme pressure.

Despite these challenges, healthcare employers have an opportunity to reimagine the workforce of the future. We must help our staff rebound from these traumas — and connect with them in creating the new work environment that they need and expect.

What's needed now

First and foremost, our workforce needs to heal, which will not be a quick fix. We employers have a huge role in fostering the healing process, and there are various ways we can help.

We must promote positivity, self-care, and laughter — creating a culture that promotes healing. We can consider offering and encouraging sabbaticals, potentially making them a permanent program. In this early recovery phase, on-site counselors, specialized physician employee assistance programs and mental health "first aid" (responding to signs of mental illness) can all help employees begin the healing process. Flexible schedules, shorter shifts and other innovations can also go far toward alleviating some of the strain of the past 18 months.

Cultivating resilience among staff is essential. Employee resource groups can provide safe spaces to promote peer-to-peer support, hone organization policies and practices to be more supportive and inclusive, and develop and lead training programs that promote resilience and self-care.

We also must listen consistently and carefully to employees to learn what they need most, creating a systematic two-way communication feedback loop — particularly with bedside clinicians — using focus groups, follow-up interviews and action plans. We must act on their feedback, showing with actions that they are a priority and that their voice is transforming the organizational fabric. And, when communicating in any crisis, transparency and authenticity are essential.

We must thoughtfully tailor our responses to the needs of every employee. We must try to allow them to work their own way, perhaps in a hybrid of on-site and remote work. And we must continue teaching all employees how to maintain human connections while working virtually.

Reimagining post-pandemic work life

Our workforce and talent pool have evolved quickly. In this new reality, we must hire creatively, thinking creatively about how to find and hire top candidates — with a strong emphasis on diversity.

On another front, we need to move further toward allowing clinicians to work at the top of their licensure by supporting them with a full range of clinical staff — by increasing licensed practical nurse staffing, offering preceptorships and hiring more new graduates. Recognizing our MVPs, improving tuition assistance and offering longevity incentives can help show clinicians that the organization truly values them.

We must genuinely embrace flexibility in employees’ schedules, work sites, dress codes and other factors that give them more control over their jobs. This flexibility applies to physical workspaces, too. Many designated offices will be gone. New collaborative spaces — and new technology to reserve desks and schedule meetings — will help us embrace the hybrid workplace. However, we must give team leaders the training and tools to make this effective and give employees accommodations such as home office wi-fi stipends and equipment reimbursement.

The ways we communicate must adapt, too. To reach front-line employees who do not have designated desks, we can use mobile-friendly technologies, such as podcasts and videos from leadership that can be viewed anywhere.

Our industry's workforce has been through an unprecedented time of trauma and loss. We owe it to them to reimagine what's ahead and how to bring them through the healing process, to a better place.

Naomi Cramer is chief human resources officer for Phoenix-based Banner Health, one of the nation’s largest secular nonprofit health care systems, with more than 52,000 staff and 30 hospitals in six states.


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