The current labor shortage in the U.S. differs from any we've encountered. It affects every economic sector and is prevalent across all employment levels. Understaffing presents critical challenges within the healthcare industry and has far-reaching effects on patient care and staff well-being. Much has changed in healthcare since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and healthcare facilities must employ all available tools to combat understaffing and its outcomes.
Technology has many advantages when it comes to how to deal with understaffing. With the addition of intuitive software to help measure critical data and predict understaffing during shifts, healthcare facilities can make significant strides to prevent overstaffing and understaffing and streamline their operations.
What Causes Understaffing?
Before discussing how to solve understaffing, knowing what causes it is vital. Although there is no single cause, several factors contribute to staffing challenges in the healthcare industry. These potential reasons include:
- Aging population: The American population is aging on the whole, and the baby boom generation is reaching the stage of an increased need for health services. In 2029, the last of their generation will reach retirement age—a 73% increase in Americans aged 65 and older. As the population ages, the need for healthcare services rises, as older adults often have comorbidities requiring treatment. A population comprised of a large number of people needing healthcare puts a more significant strain on the workforce.
- Nurse burnout: Between 8.8% and 37% of nurses suffer from burnout or choose an alternate career.
- Aging workforce: The backbone of the nursing workforce is also aging. There are estimated to be 1 million registered nurses over 50 years old, meaning they will reach retirement age in the next 10 to 15 years.
- Fewer training resources: The number above includes the nursing faculty, which presents a unique challenge. Nursing faculty are experiencing a shortage, so they must train more nurses with fewer resources. Limited enrollment due to short staffing leads to little graduation and employment and an overall downturn in the quality of new applicants for healthcare positions.
- Family and career conflict: Nursing staff is still majority female and of childbearing age. Many nurses will cut back their hours or leave their careers altogether as their family dynamics shift.
- Increased demand: Despite the challenges in supplying willing workers in the healthcare industry, the market continues to rise as demand for healthcare services does.
How Does Understaffing Impact Healthcare Facilities?
Understaffing has far-reaching effects on the healthcare industry, from the individual level of staff well-being to the operation level of facilities. Since the COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented stress on the system from the grassroots level, the health industry has encountered challenges. The most significant point to note here is the direct correlation between understaffing and lapses in patient care. The more patients there are per nurse, the greater the incidence of morbidity, patient safety events, and even mortality.
With increased workloads placed on existing healthcare workers, the chances of burnout and fatigue are significant. When these workers are pushed to their physical and cognitive capacity, the results could include unsafe practice management workarounds and cognitive failures, which put the safety of both patients and the workers themselves at risk.
Some results of understaffing include the following:
- Medication errors: Nurses rushing to attend to high patient loads are more likely to make errors in the administration of medication.
- Patient falls: When healthcare workers spend limited time with each patient, they are more likely to attempt to meet their needs unassisted, which can lead to falls and other injuries. For example, knowing how to prevent understaffing in a long-term care facility would provide older adults with access to the level of care required to avoid such incidents.
- Patient dissatisfaction: Healthcare facilities rely on feedback to attract patients and meet financial requirements. Poor reviews can affect a healthcare facility's bottom line.
How to Recognize Understaffing in Your Facility
Knowing if you're facing understaffing challenges is the first step to rectifying the problem. If you experience any of the following challenges in your facility, they could be a result of understaffing:
- Decreased Productivity: Upon close inspection of your current key performance metrics and identifying lower productivity, consider whether it could result from staff burnout. Healthcare workers taking multiple shifts or being responsible for many patients will find it challenging to perform optimally.
- Poor morale: Employees who lack the motivation to perform their duties, are consistently late, or work overtime could suffer from fatigue due to understaffing.
- Increased absenteeism: Staff members suffering the effects of overwork are more likely to be absent. A notable upward trend in absenteeism could be another sign of burnout due to understaffing.
- Higher staff turnover: If staff members feel their challenges are not considered or their expectations increase, they may seek alternate employment. The loss of valuable staff members is particularly troubling, as it only adds pressure on the remaining staff members.
- Unfavorable patient reviews: Patients are already vulnerable when cared for by strangers. If they feel staff members need to meet their needs, they will leave poor reviews, which, if it's a regular occurrence, could be an indicator that staff members are too overstretched to give them the care they expect.
- Increased incidence of human error: Fatigued staff and healthcare workers experiencing burnout are more likely to make avoidable mistakes, like administering the incorrect medication or failing to respond to patient calls.
5 Ways to Proactively Prevent Understaffing
While understaffing in healthcare is a global challenge, there are measures that healthcare facilities can take to prevent understaffing and mitigate the outcomes. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more healthcare facilities are adopting workforce management software and embracing technology as a workable method of managing this crisis.
The five key ways to proactively prevent understaffing include the following:
1. Assess Staffing Needs
From your current staffing framework, conduct a thorough analysis of your staff's needs, paying careful attention to staffing challenges. Consider the shifts your healthcare facility operates and the tasks staff need to cover during their shifts.
Feedback from your staff is invaluable. Discuss with staff members—individually and in groups—how they manage their current shift demands and whether they would find it helpful to have more staff available during these hours.
The information you gather during your assessment helps set a minimum staff level for each shift. When your staff feels adequately supported by other team members, they will be more confident in their daily activities and less overwhelmed by understaffing challenges.
2. Focus on Staff Benefits and Retention
Improving staff retention limits how often you require new staff. In 2021, 63% of staff cited low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement as critical reasons to terminate their employment, while 57% spoke of feeling disrespected at work. Create a meaningful impact on staff retention in the following ways:
- Pay higher wages: Paying higher wages impacts productivity within your workforce, which can directly impact profitability. More productive staff have a higher output. In some cases, this output has a more beneficial financial impact on your organization.
- Establish overtime procedures: Some staff seeks overtime, and others find it contributes to burnout. Employees are more likely to seek alternate employment if they feel pressure to complete overtime requirements. Standardizing overtime practices with staff well-being in mind can prevent staff from leaving due to stress.
- Provide advancement opportunities: Staff who are learning and growing in the course of their work experience have higher satisfaction rates. They are more likely to retain their positions if they can gravitate toward their preferred work. Offering training and mentorship is one method to accomplish a feeling of progress.
- Create engagement opportunities: Ensure your management staff provides opportunities for your workers to give feedback on their experience. Their input provides valuable data you can use to streamline your operations further.
3. Use Automation to Streamline Your Processes
Workforce automation technology has many benefits in healthcare applications. About 44% of administrative tasks in general practice are automatable, proving that the addition of automation has a marked effect on staff productivity. Automating scheduling for hiring, onboarding, scheduling, and payroll frees up staff to focus on their core competencies. Scheduling software is vital to healthcare, and has the following benefits:
- Managing complex shifts.
- Focusing staff on their core competencies.
- Facilitating communication between management and team members.
- Streamlining payroll and other operational processes.
4. Use Technology to Keep Your Workforce Organized
Including workforce management software in your operational processes provides your organization with numerous benefits, including optimizing the workday to increase staff engagement and improve performance. Mobile shift management alternatives connect employees and empower them to engage with what matters most to them in their work.
With a workforce management tool designed specifically for healthcare, you can look forward to cost reductions and compliance support for your industry and minimize understaffing with efficient scheduling options. With the correct technology backing your efforts, you can schedule in real-time and reduce the need for overtime.
Technology facilitates communication between staff members and promotes collaboration between departments. Communication tools are excellent in their own right, but arming your staff with technology that aids in recruiting quality team members also reduces the risk of high turnover rates within your organization.
5. Use Real-Time Data to Advance Planning and Scheduling
Access to data is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. With the correct data at your fingertips, you can enhance your decision-making and predict understaffing incidents before they happen.
Data is robust, but for it to be instrumental in preventing understaffing, you must have insight. With the correct software, however, you'll have metrics to create strategic objectives aligned with your overall goals. You can tailor your operational procedures for better patient ratings, improved patient safety, and happier, more engaged staff.
The Benefits of Using Technology to Prevent Understaffing
Adopting suitable technology is an excellent strategy for healthcare organizations looking to prevent understaffing and the associated risks. With technology, you can accomplish the following:
Do More With Fewer Resources
Technology helps streamline workflows and eliminate redundancies. Staff members are freed from mundane, repetitive tasks to focus on their core competencies and progress in their chosen careers. When these tasks are automated, there is also less margin for human error—whether due to burnout or other factors.
Automation requires financial output, but provides a fantastic return on investment (ROI), reduces labor requirements, and increases productivity throughout the workforce.
Achieve Real-Time Visibility
Real-time access to data around your key performance indicators (KPIs) provides almost limitless opportunities to optimize workflows, enhance productivity and engage staff. With the data made available with specialized technology, you can measure absenteeism, overtime, and other key metrics that provide an understanding of your individual and operational capacity.
With access to actionable data, you can establish an objective regarding staffing and monitor performance, making real-time adjustments as you better understand what elements work well. Finding opportunities for improvement in scheduling and operational management is a robust tool for preventing understaffing, as you have data-driven evidence to identify challenges.
Improve Scheduling Processes
Creating schedules that adapt in real-time with mobile access makes finding replacement staff easy at short notice, as the app notifies eligible staff members who can opt to take the extra work. Your team is empowered with notifications of new schedules and scheduling changes. They can submit time off, open shift requests, and achieve a healthier work-life balance.
Automatic notifications of scheduling changes help fill open shifts with staff members qualified to take them, supporting compliance within your organization.
With actionable methods to monitor attendance, you can enforce pay policies and empower your staff to make changes to their punch-ins or punch-outs while analyzing trends that aid in decision-making. With proactive overtime alerts and insights into the number of hours they work, you can enhance workforce planning with accurate staff data.
With more proactive and engaged staff, your facility's overall productivity improves, directly affecting patient ratings and the standard of care. Healthcare workers also experience greater job satisfaction when they provide their patients with the best care.
Foster Communication and Engagement
Integrating an efficient workforce management suite can assist your healthcare facility with hiring, onboarding, scheduling, payroll, and reporting. With a centralized and intuitive platform, staff members and management can manage schedules and improve communication to foster staff engagement and collaboration.
Increased visibility enables management to maintain efficient scheduling, and healthcare providers and administrators can communicate effectively via mobile applications. Good communication, in turn, impacts staff performance and alleviates burnout. Adopting a workforce management solution shows your team that you care about their needs and are willing to take the necessary steps to mitigate the effects of understaffing.
Proactively Prevent Understaffing with Smartlinx
With Smartlinx, you can access an efficient and intuitive workforce management tool designed specifically for healthcare. Manage your data and staff scheduling from one central hub and see all your staffing data in one place, ensuring accurate communication and shift filling. Whether you're looking for Time and Attendance or reporting and compliance assistance, we can help you streamline your processes and focus on what you do best—caring for patients.
Set your staff up for success with Smartlinx, and together, we can combat understaffing challenges and meet your staff and patient needs. Schedule a demo today to see first-hand how Smartlinx Solutions can streamline your operations and engage your staff, or get in touch with us, and one of our skilled staff members will answer your questions.
Together, we can create a happier, healthier workforce and better patient experience.