By Chris Caulfield, RN, NP-C.
The nursing profession is at a breaking point. Chronic staff shortages, an aging U.S. population and burnout driven by physically and emotionally stressful work and forced overtime, create a perfect storm that is driving nurses away from healthcare just when they are needed the most.
One ray of hope for salvation comes in the unexpected form of the gig economy. Using the same concepts that Uber and Lyft leveraged to transform urban transportation, companies are now beginning to apply these very same supply and demand principles to healthcare. So far, the early results are very encouraging. This type of technology empowers nurses to regain the flexibility to control their own schedules and income, and those facilities who once battled seemingly chronic staff shortages and burnout are now adept at keeping its internal staff happier and more engaged.
The “Perfect Storm” of nurse stress
Nursing is a tough job even at the best of times. A study by RN Network found that a full 50% of nurses have considered leaving the profession due to stress. Today there are also many added stressors on top of the fundamental physical and emotional challenges of a nurse’s daily duties. Insufficient nurse staffing at facilities forces many nurses to handle more patients than is generally considered safe, time-off is extremely difficult to secure especially during weekends and holidays when it is most sought after, and many organizations wind up putting undo pressure on nurses to fill overtime shifts well beyond their normal 40 hr. work week.
This combination of stressful work, too many hours and the lack of control over one’s schedule is a toxic combination that is yielding a turnover rate of 65% among CNAs and 47% among licensed nurses in nursing homes, according to a University of Maryland study. Worst of all, these nurses are not just leaving the facilities they work for, they are leaving nursing all together.
To stop this hemorrhaging of nurses from the field, the industry will need systemic change to create better professional environments and a sustainable model that works for nurses and facilities.
Can the gig economy save nursing?
The term “gig economy” refers to the growing phenomenon in the global ecosystem of temporary contracts and part-time work, which has been lauded for the flexibility and autonomy it gives workers, and its ability to cut costs and improve productivity in certain industries. The gig economy has grown rapidly, with reports from Upwork’s annual “Freelancing in America” study finding that 36% of the U.S. workforce participates in gig work.
Gig brands like Upwork and Uber have been able to optimize workforces across multiple industries and allow individuals to better monetize and manage their time, supporting a work-life balance that can be less stressful that traditional 9-5 work. Numerous studies confirm that workers increasingly crave independence and self-determination, and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it.
In a study titled “Alternative Work Arrangements and Job Satisfaction,” published by Villanova School of Business Department of Economics and Statistics, Cheryl Carleton and Mary Kelly found that workers with more control over what work they do and when they do it are more likely to say they are “very satisfied” with their jobs, and are happier than their salaried peers – despite the lack of benefits and security.
The gig economy offers benefits to employers as well. Upwork is a popular gig brand that connects freelancers with businesses seeking to supplement and optimize its workforce. This model benefits companies by helping it meet variable work demand without burning out internal staff. Both parties also benefit from the ability to effectively “test-drive” and train potential candidates before hiring.
Healthcare staffing apps modeled off of gig success stories, like Upwork and Uber, are starting to bring the same benefits to the nursing world, improving work environments by keeping staff levels up, increasing job satisfaction, making work less stressful, and giving nurses the ability to supplement their income as much or as little as they wish. This bodes well for the healthcare industry, and as nurses are finally able to take advantage of the benefits of the gig economy, experts expect to see a drop in workers defecting from the industry altogether.
Not all gigs are created equal
The gig economy is not entirely new to nursing, which has long been served by temporary staffing agencies. Traditional healthcare staffing agencies play a vital role, but the model has some significant shortcomings. True resource availability can be very hard to determine as agencies require nurses to provide availability two months in advance. This is impractical for nurses who may well provide the same availability information to multiple agencies. The result is uncertainty for both nurses with untapped availability and facilities seeking to fill last-minute shifts with coverage that is no longer available.
By instantaneously connecting staffing requests to a network of nurses via real-time matching functionality, staffing apps provide for more accurate and reliable shift-filling. It also gives nurses the freedom to browse hundreds of potential shifts and filter based on timing and location. The ability to earn and gain valuable experience on one’s own terms, while also being able to balance time for family, friends, and self-care, is a game-changer for nursing professionals, which will hopefully retain and bolster the flow of valuable skills and experience in the nursing field.
Chris Caulfield, RN, NP-C. is Co-Founder and Chief Nursing Officer at IntelyCare.