US healthcare workers across the country staged 27 strikes in 2023. These ranged from small walkouts to the largest healthcare strike in US history which saw 75,000 Kaiser Permanente union members take to the picket lines. Strikes like these don’t just disrupt services in the short term, but they, and the reasons behind them, can have long-term consequences and propose one of the major healthcare staffing challenges. The underlying causes behind the strikes make it more difficult for organizations to attract and retain workers, putting pressure on existing staff, and making future strikes more likely.
To reduce the impact of strikes on healthcare staffing, organizations need to address the reasons healthcare workers are dissatisfied, but they also need to put in place strategies to improve employee engagement, expand talent pipelines, and better attract and retain healthcare talent.
Why Are Healthcare Workers Striking?
Like many people across the US, healthcare workers have been hit by declining real wages. Combined with a soaring cost of living, increasing rents and high inflation, their pay doesn’t go far enough. At the same time corporate profits seem to keep rising, deepening the sense of disparity.
Healthcare workers are also still dealing with the very real consequences of COVID-19. Over the past four years, health and social care staff made sacrifices, continuing to work long hours in difficult circumstances while many others were able to work remotely. Healthcare staffing levels are also a concern; many departments remain understaffed, piling the pressure on existing workers.
The same pressures are being felt in other industries too. 2023 saw strikes by hospitality workers, postal workers, railroad workers, writers and actors, and factory and manufacturing workers as well as healthcare workers.
It helps that the wider political environment is generally supportive to union action right now. As the cost-of-living bites across the board Americans are more accepting of worker activism and the possibility of collective bargaining than they have been since the 1950s. September even saw President Biden join a picket line – the first time in history a sitting US president has done so.
The Impact of Staff Shortages in Healthcare
Staff shortages in healthcare can have a significant and far-reaching impact on everything from your ability to recruit skilled healthcare professionals, to the overall functioning of the healthcare system. Here are some key areas affected by staff shortages in healthcare:
Patient Care Quality and Access to Care
Staff shortages can lead to longer wait times for patients seeking care, both in emergency situations and for routine appointments. Long term shortages can even result in limited access for patients living in underserved areas or for specialties already facing workforce challenges. For those patients who can access services, healthcare providers may have less time to spend with each patient, potentially compromising the quality of care they receive and patient safety. Fatigue and stress from overworked staff increase the likelihood of errors in diagnosis, treatment, and medication administration.
Increased Workload and Burnout
Existing healthcare staff are often required to take on heavier workloads to compensate for staff shortages, leading to fatigue, stress, and burnout. Nearly 50% of all healthcare staff in the US experience some level of burnout. Constant understaffing also affects morale. Low morale contributes to poor teamwork communication and overall workplace satisfaction. Unhappy healthcare workers will look elsewhere for jobs, contributing to high turnover and putting even more pressure on those that stay.
To address staffing gaps, healthcare facilities may need to rely on overtime, or on temporary and agency staff to fill immediate gaps. This can be costly and may not provide the same continuity of care as full-time, permanent staff. Alongside increased staffing costs, staff shortages can also affect the financial performance of healthcare organizations as patients go elsewhere to receive care.
Most importantly, ongoing staff shortages can make it difficult for healthcare facilities to attract and retain skilled professionals. Poor employee morale and engagement lead to poor retention and high turnover as burnt-out staff leave. High turnover and a failure to address staff concerns around workloads, benefits and hours can impact on your reputation as an employer, making it harder to fill open positions.
5 Ways Healthcare Organizations Can Address Staffing Challenges
To address these healthcare staffing challenges, organizations must put in place strategies to fill open positions quickly and efficiently as well as to meet the underlying concerns of existing staff.
1. Review Compensation & Benefits Packages
Is your compensation in line with living costs in your area? Do your packages meet the needs and expectations of staff? Are you transparent about how you calculate pay bands and how performance affects pay?
2. Build a Positive Culture
A positive workplace culture is one where every employee feels supported and valued. You can promote this by implementing wellness programs, flexible scheduling, and initiatives that enhance work-life balance. You can also encourage a collaborative, team-based approach to care that uses the skills of a variety of disciplines, reducing workload pressure.
3. Explore New Technologies
Electronic health records (EHRs), telemedicine, and other digital solutions can help healthcare professionals manage their workload more effectively and contribute to patient care without being physically present. Tech can also help with recruitment efforts with automation and AI being used to screen candidates, understand hiring data, target new talent pools and fill positions quickly.
4. Think Ahead with Strategic Workforce Planning
Workforce planning allows you to predict and plan for possible staff shortages, particularly around seasonal busy periods and staff sickness and absence. Done well, it can help reduce the need for excessive overtime and means you only bring in agency staff when needed, reducing costs.
5. Develop Your Employer Brand
To reach healthcare professionals who may be looking to move to a more supportive workplace you need to think creatively about your recruitment. Healthcare professionals, like the rest of the US workforce, increasingly use social media to help them search for roles, network, and share information about employers. Healthcare organizations should develop their online presence both on their own career website and popular platforms to extend their reach, target new talent and screen candidates for better candidate quality.
Want to make your healthcare staffing more resilient? With Pierpoint by your side you’ll have the expertise and recruitment tools to build an efficient hiring strategy. Talk to an expert today to discuss your talent needs.