By Nanne Finis, RN, MS
Never before has labor management been the subject of such scrutiny as it is in today’s global health crisis — and for good reason. Labor management systems, which have been historically quiet in larger healthcare conversations, are now at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as optimized schedules, adequate labor supply, and workforce productivity have become essential to maintain employee safety, meet patient demand, and ensure quality care. The emphasis on provider and staff engagement has never been higher, nor has the workforce data upon which data-driven decision-making is built.
As we all begin to grapple with the current workforce challenges in the era of COVID-19 — and those still yet to be seen — it’s important that health leaders begin to identify how their organizations can drive workforce agility, supporting the wellbeing of employees, and manage effectively through great uncertainty, without losing sight of the ultimate goal: exceptional patient outcomes.
Understand what best combats burnout — and invest in it.
It’s in the DNA of healthcare professionals to put the interest of their patients and the health of the public before their own, and this passion for giving back has only been strengthened by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as providers and staff alike continue to focus on caring for large volumes of complex patients, the likelihood of burnout dramatically increases.
A study by The Workforce Institute at UKG found that, although staff retention is viewed as an essential function by the vast majority (91%) of hospital HR executives, nurses don’t agree: Fewer than 3 in 5 (57%) believe their organization is doing all it can to retain good nurses. Many hospitals and health organizations have already experienced a significant financial impact as a result of registered nurse turnover and, simply put, they can’t afford to be hit again financially — particularly in the midst of a public health crisis.
Now more than ever, health organizations must invest in a culture that revolves around workforce engagement and retention by enabling employee flexibility, instilling trust into every interaction, and providing mobile technology that allows employees to take control of their work-life balance. With the help of intelligent and employee-facing workplace solutions, organizations can meet patient needs and deliver quality care while also proactively managing workloads and minimizing employee fatigue.
Use workforce data to surface helpful insights to inform day-to-day operations.
The impact of COVID-19 has led hospitals and health systems to seek out a bird’s eye view of workforce operations to ensure efficiency and safety: When and where are employees scheduled to work? What resources do they need? Do they have the appropriate technical skills and capabilities to perform the tasks at hand?
By enabling staff and providers to manage schedules in real time and on their preferred device, they can make data-driven decisions easily while cutting out the time-consuming administrative tasks that eat up so much of the work day, allowing them to instead focus on tackling high-value projects and interfacing with patients. And for managers, quick access to data views not only informs in-the-moment operational decisions, but long-term strategic decisions that can positively impact the overall employee experience.
Greater workforce visibility can also help organizations jump one of today’s greatest hurdles: Streamlining the allocation of skilled labor where and when providers are needed most. Particularly in an era where patient demand is volatile, hospitals need a way to easily create labor pools and deploy staff to tackle the most pressing tasks — such as managing the ICU, answering phones, checking temperatures at the door — while accurately recording employee time based on pay codes, job codes, accruals, labor laws, and more. The ability to mobilize an agile workforce is no longer a nice-to-have — it’s a necessity.
Geisinger, a large health system serving more than three million residents in Pennsylvania, experienced this firsthand: When COVID-19 struck, leaders mobilized quickly and tapped into the power of cloud-based scheduling to coordinate care across multiple testing sites and care centers.
“Within a matter of days, our mobile scheduling technology enabled us to establish eight pandemic tents fully staffed by 500 providers. Each patient received the individualized care and resources they needed,” said Krista Kull, a Workforce Management Optimization Consultant for Geisinger. “As we begin to resume surgery operations, we’re utilizing the same centralized scheduling system to set up pre-surgery COVID-19 testing sites, floating staff to and from a region or site based on patient demand and provider availability.”
“What we’ve accomplished from a technology perspective,” said Kull, “has made our workforce more agile and created long-term resiliency in our operations. Ultimately, this empowers us to be fully prepared to respond swiftly and strategically to future health crises that may come our way.”
In order to optimize labor supply, HR must be viewed as a strategic function.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, health organizations will — and should — look to invest in technologies and systems that leave them better prepared. However, the reality is that many hospitals will be devastated financially and unable to invest in important upgrades to keep up with the exponential curve of innovation. Moreover, organizations that have been prioritizing running lean in the past may find that their ultimate goal of unparalleled efficiency may be costing them long-term, human-oriented success.
Rather than waiting for the calm after COVID-19, leaders must begin parsing out how to balance efficiency and sustainability sooner rather than later — lest they run the risk of being unprepared for the next crisis. This includes a close partnership between finance, HR, and other health leaders to understand the full scope of what organizational health looks like in the “next normal.” By analyzing financial and operational trends in healthcare, as well as staffing patterns across care settings, leaders can better predict and plan for future challenges, opportunities, and needs related to staffing resources. In particular, as labor models continue to shift, organizations must consider sharing staffing resources fluidly across care sites and hospitals within a region or enterprise to accommodate demand for care where and when it’s required.
“There’s no denying that new ways of work will emerge as health organizations navigate these unprecedented times,” says Pamela Camerlin, Healthcare Clinical Strategist / Nurse Executive Northeast for UKG. “However, healthcare is ultimately about people — staff, providers, patients, and the community.”
When thinking about safety and wellbeing, start with the workforce. By enabling employees with workplace technology that automates, streamlines, and informs their daily decisions, they will be in the best possible position to care for patients.
The onus that falls on health leaders today is great — but the opportunity to prioritize the employee experience and cultivate a workplace that empowers, supports, and cares for people is even greater.
Nanne Finis, RN, MS, is chief nurse executive of UKG.