From traveling nurses to agency staff, providers need to adapt to meet new generation’s needs

March 28, 2022 Kimberly Anderson-Mutch

The “future of work” is here and now. For years, younger workers have requested more flexible work arrangements to no avail. Organizations across many sectors didn’t consider these appeals to be practical or actionable. In March 2020, their attitudes and policies changed. 

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic revolutionized the workplace as government officials tried to reduce transmission rates across the country. As a result, people in nearly every sector of the economy adapted to remote and hybrid work arrangements, but healthcare has been slow to evolve. 

This is nothing new. Healthcare is laced with red tape and bureaucracy, making it difficult to progress with technological advancements and the current labor movement. This is due, in part, to a mentality of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” and, in part, because there are very few pioneers willing to invest in unchartered territory without knowing the outcome. 

There’s much education to be done around the changing workforce and the benefits of technology. It’s a people-centered industry focused on patient care, so it’s difficult to develop workarounds for the in-person work it requires without ballooning budgets. So, healthcare workers are among the most overworked, at-risk frontline workers tasked with treating COVID-19 patients and risking exposure in every part of their jobs. 

As a result, we’re suffering from a worsening national healthcare staffing crisis: Nurses are leaving their jobs at alarming rates to become travel nurses with more flexibility and higher wages (or leaving the field entirely) and vaccination requirements are causing some staff to reconsider their jobs

Now, we’re at a crossroads. Healthcare workers, from Gen Z to Boomers, are demanding more flexible schedules, higher pay, and less overtime so they can manage child care, sick family members and professional development opportunities

This is all pointing to a fundamental shift in the way people – including healthcare workers – want to work: on their schedule, their time and when it suits them. That doesn’t mean that standards of care must suffer, though. There is a way to deliver quality care with a more flexible work environment. 

Progressive healthcare organizations are considering new technologies, protocols and operations that allow for flexible work schedules to meet the demands of a new generation, while maintaining, or even improving, standards of care. 

Flexible work is not the future of work, it’s now. 
Historically, the healthcare space has relied much more on consistent, reliable care. Patients were accustomed to receiving care from the same healthcare providers on their schedules. Now, static schedules and consistent care are relics of the past, the latest casualties of the staffing crisis and the pandemic. 

In addition, people want to spend more time with family, have more flexible schedules, and prioritize mental health & wellbeing. This has given rise to many travel nursing opportunities. 

Staff nurses are leaving their posts to take more flexible nursing contracts that pay up to three times as much. In the past, staffing agencies and travel nurses were considered too expensive, hard to manage, or unable to deliver consistent care. But now, they’re no longer an option – they’ve become a necessity for healthcare organizations to fill the staffing pipeline.

Suspending nurse certifications is only a stop-gap, not a long-term solution. 
To help manage the staffing crisis during the pandemic, many states temporarily suspended occupational licensing, including nursing licenses. However, this was only a short-term solution to a long-standing problem. Licensing requirements exist to ensure quality patient care, so state officials never intended to suspend them indefinitely. As licensing requirements return to normal, the workforce may shrink even further. 

Organizations need to think about how to prepare for the “next pandemic” and expand their pipeline before a crisis hits. The demand for licensed essential workers will continue to increase and retaining top talent will be more critical than ever. Providing flexible work arrangements with incentives these workers value will help retain essential workers. 

Consider Gen Z’s perspective on healthcare: 
Gen Z makes up 20% of today’s population, and many are just finishing nursing school, entering medical school, or beginning their careers. They are technology-natives who crave flexible, remote work options. To recruit and retain medical professionals, you need to think about how to attract – and retain – Gen Z workers.

Hiring staff at healthcare facilities staff is changing drastically, and the role of the Human Resources (HR) department is growing, as HR partners need to take personal and medical considerations into account. 

The bottom line is the way we work is changing and healthcare organizations need to catch up. Facilities that previously relied on their workforce to deliver consistent quality care with rigid schedules, mediocre pay and limited work-life balance are no longer sustainable. 

Healthcare organizations need to get on board with new strategies for consistent care that serve both their patients and their employees. Cultivating a hybrid workplace environment that attracts full-time staff, traveling nurses and agency staff is what is needed. 

It’s up to technology providers to come together to create a tightknit ecosystem to make this a reality, and it’s up to the healthcare industry to embrace this new way of work. One where medical professionals have a flexible work schedule, fair pay and can easily complete licensing requirements during paid time are all attractive options that may help healthcare organizations reduce turnover and increase employee satisfaction.

Originally published in Mcknight's Long-Term Care News.

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