Addressing Top Healthcare Workforce Challenges in the New Normal

Senior Director of Marketing

The COVID-19 pandemic irrevocably shaped the healthcare industry as we know it. As a result, healthcare providers face many challenges as society returns to a semblance of normalcy, especially when it comes to the workforce.

Here are the top three workforce challenges healthcare providers must address in our new normal:

1. Staffing Shortages

Staffing shortages are the No. 1 challenge facing hospitals and other care providers nationwide. While clinical staff always seem in demand, these shortages run the gamut from physicians and nursing staff to housekeeping and the dietary department. And they happen for several reasons, says Sharmane Andrews, MSN, RN, CPEC, and Owner of Andrews Consulting Firm.

How healthcare providers address staffing shortages often depends on the organization. Many hospitals currently rely on the assistance of healthcare staffing agencies, which supply nursing and support staff for a price. So experienced nurses can make more money traveling where the need is the greatest rather than staying at their local hospital.

Then, toss in new graduate nurses who completed their programs during the pandemic and may have skill gaps. These nurses also may belong to Generation Z and won’t tolerate what they see as poor leadership.

“If senior leadership doesn’t pivot and create a relationship with these Gen Z nurses, you are going to continue to see higher turnover because they won’t hesitate to quit if they are not getting what they need,” Andrews says.

“This problem has been looming. The pandemic was the catalyst that set it all on fire.”

To attract the workforce organically, healthcare providers are trying to make the work, or at least the paycheck, more attractive.

“A lot of hospitals are offering different benefits, maybe sign-on bonuses or some other creative things,” says Stacie Jenkins, MSN, RN, CPSO, and Vice President of Patient Safety and Risk at LHA Trust Funds. “They are trying to bump up those benefits to make it more appealing to come to work.” 

2. Violence in Healthcare

While violence in healthcare has always been an issue, the COVID-19 pandemic and staff shortages increased the chances of volatile incidents in emergency departments and waiting rooms. Healthcare violence can refer to aggressive behavior from patients toward healthcare staff members or even staff members toward one another.

“We have a lot of issues with aggression, violence and gang violence and drug violence and things like this, just in our communities,” Jenkins says. “It really is a community problem, and it just sort of spills over into our healthcare organizations.”

So how does the healthcare workforce combat actual violence and aggression?

By learning to recognize it and de-escalate it through training. The Joint Commission released new workplace violence standards in January 2022, creating a framework to develop prevention and reporting systems, fine-tune policies, and prioritize staff training.

Jenkins recommends that healthcare providers develop a plan to handle violence against healthcare workers, empower staff members to speak up about violent incidents and look at how their organization operates security. Maintaining positive relationships with local law enforcement also is key to addressing violence in healthcare.

3.Depression and Burnout

A 2021 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 55% of front-line healthcare workers reported burnout. The survey also found that 26% of hospital healthcare workers are angry, and 29% have considered leaving the medical field.

The pandemic caused many physicians and nurses on the cusp of retirement to leave, compounding staff shortages. Add in even more stress brought on by those staffing shortages, and it’s no wonder the workforce left behind is dealing with burnout and depression.

There is no easy way to fix those feelings. Many healthcare providers try to do what they can for their staff members, from making free counseling available through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to providing perks like respite rooms and massage chairs. Forums to educate employees on recognizing burnout symptoms and ways to handle it are essential, Andrews says, as are organizational leadership efforts to acknowledge the work healthcare staff is doing.

“Never underestimate the power of recognition,” she says. “Staff members just want to be acknowledged that they are doing this hard work, that they are short-staffed, that they are dealing with all these things. Acknowledgment and a thank you go a long way.”

The Road to Recovery

Employees are a healthcare provider’s biggest asset. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened many workforce-related issues healthcare providers were already facing. As the pandemic ebbs, the healthcare industry must show that it values its workforce through words and deeds to truly recover.