By Pamela J. Gallagher
Everywhere I see headlines about “The Great Resignation.” Many are pontificating about why people are leaving jobs or about unemployed individuals’ motivations for choosing to delay looking for a new position. However, I am particularly concerned with the employees who are left behind to pick up the slack as open positions remain unfilled. These changes in the workforce have created an enormous burden on these healthcare professionals, all while patient volume remains the same or increases. This burden falls on the direct patient care staff as well as support and management in healthcare. There is only so much they can absorb.
On the surface, leaving open positions unfilled in hopes that current employees will expand their capacity and work more efficiently seems like an effective way to cut costs. As someone who has worked in healthcare finance for decades, I can understand this line of thinking, but caution against this near-sighted approach.
COVID burnout is on everyone’s lips, and while the potential for burnout for employees who remain at understaffed organizations is certainly related and exacerbated by COVID, the burnout these workers are experiencing is distinct. The long-term financial costs associated with widespread burnout among staff would be staggering, to say nothing of the loss of integrity and the trust of our communities by failing to show proper concern for our employees’ well-being.
Name your priorities.
Part of the solution to prevent burnout in the employees who have chosen to stay in your organization must be to discern what tasks, responsibilities, services, and processes are essential to the operation of your facility and your mission to provide quality care for your patients. Anything outside of those priorities needs to be placed on the backburner for the time being.
One possibility as hospitals choose what to prioritize is to introduce automation where possible in order to ease the burden on employees who are spread thin. Even before the pandemic began, I advocated for the use of automation in hospitals’ back offices. Automation was viewed with skepticism in the healthcare industry, yet the past year a half has brought on the necessary embrace of automation technology from grocery stores to restaurants to reduce possible disease-spreading contact and respond to the lack of workers to fill customer-facing positions. Healthcare must follow suit.
In addition to automation, hospitals need to consider the continuing role of telehealth in serving their patients. There are also innovations that allow healthcare professionals to monitor patients remotely to decrease the patient count in the hospital. As with all technology, this is not without its tradeoffs: while this could produce less crowded hospitals, it also means less human touch for patients—for better or for worse.
Document institutional knowledge.
Auditors at accounting firms have pointed out that the loss of institutional knowledge has been one the costliest factors of this recent exodus from the workforce. Organizations have realized the danger of having employees who are able to say, “I’m the only one that knows this info, so my job is safe.” When those employees leave, the remaining workers have no way to access their knowledge and expertise, creating a domino effect of inefficiency.
It is imperative for organizations to create a culture of documentation where procedures, processes, vendor relationships, etc., live on paper and not in employees’ heads. Every single person in every department should be actively documenting their knowledge so that the organization can continue to do its work, even in their absence.
There are many opinions and theories about how long the current labor crisis will last before we return to equilibrium. But in the meantime, our workers who have chosen to stay with our organizations are bearing the burden of responsibility for their work as well as that left by unfilled positions. The long-term effects of this could be detrimental to our employees’ health and, as a result, our organizations’ health. We must adapt to these times in a way that cares for our dedicated workers.
Pamela J. Gallagher is a senior healthcare finance executive with 20 years of experience balancing the reality of finance with the delivery of excellent patient care. As a consultant she instills financial discipline, streamlines processes to maximize revenue, and reduces expenses for immediate improvements and long-term results. She writes on healthcare, finance, and technology at gallaghersresulting.com.