The bright side of the staffing crisis

The staffing crisis. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates our country will need an additional 1.3 million nursing, home health and personal care aides in the next ten years, a fact that makes me want to crawl under my desk and curl up in the fetal position. That daunting number is in addition to the shortage of talent already plaguing aging services. Combine these numbers with the shrinking number of caregivers, primarily women aged 25-50, who most often provide the care and support in our field and we have what can only be described as a true crisis on our hands.

With all this depressing data, is there any hope for aging services and the vulnerable population we serve?

As a person who strives to find the silver lining in any and all situations, and usually does, even I must admit I was overwhelmed with a sense of dread when researching our nation’s staffing shortage. But then I turned to the classical language of Latin.

When I was a Cyndi Lauper loving, lace-gloved wearing, high school student I was forced to study this romance language for three years. My friends and I referred to Latin as the “useless” language. Years later, I finally found use for the language as a source of hope for the long-term care staffing crisis.

It turns out the word crisis finds its roots in the Latin word certus, which means to sift or separate. Like searching for gold, a crisis filters out the dirt and leaves you with what’s important. What if the silver lining to our staffing crisis is that we are left with a treasure? A treasure that comes in the form of remarkable team members who are supported by their organizations like never before.

The current and looming staffing crisis has organizations taking another look at their commitment to their most important asset: people. The majority of leaders in our field have known about the importance of employee engagement for organizational outcomes, but few organizations have acted to develop processes to improve engagement.

I often challenge my clients to compare census data to employee data. Daily census numbers are analyzed and questioned about why census isn’t higher, what happened this month that census dipped so low or what actions can be taken to raise census.

In comparison, if information regarding employees, such as satisfaction, engagement, turnover and retention is collected, it’s rarely given the same scrutiny. Ask yourself the following:

When is the last time someone actually reviewed the employee survey information in your organization?

  • Was the feedback from employees acted upon and communicated to them?
  • How often is retention and turnover information reviewed to determine what’s going right so you can do more of it?
  • How many team members leave after working just a week, a month or a year? Why are they leaving?

The easy answer for many organizations is to say, “Yes, we do that!” In my experience, though, it’s not often done well. Assumptions are made about what is happening and why. Some of the frequent assumptions I hear about engagement and turnover: “People don’t like change.” “The younger generation doesn’t want to work like our generation.” “They didn’t know the work would be so hard so they left.” “They are a professional at orientation and just go place to place attending orientation instead of working.”

Frankly, I don’t believe any of it. If your organization is going to survive the impending crisis, it needs to sift through all the data available and take an active approach to improving engagement. If you don’t, employees feel disempowered and distant from the company’s vision. You risk not only losing them from your organization, but also chasing them from the field of aging services when they chalk up their one bad experience to a terrible industry for employment.

Strengthening employee engagement will reward you with lower turnover and improved recruitment. Here are six tips to tackle the crisis head on:

  1. Start from the very beginning. Consider the experience of applying for a job. Has your organization built a culture that is excited to have them apply and makes it known that it only accepts the best, or is it one that hires anyone with a pulse? Are applicants treated the same way as touring family members and residents?
  2. Look for the right candidates in the wrong places. Did you meet a dynamic employee at the local movie theater with a great personality who would be the perfect fit for your culture—and the field of aging services? Introduce him/her to the field and tell them why he/she would thrive at your organization. You’ll be adding to your bench of the right people and chipping away at those daunting numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  3. Hire the right managers. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “People leave their supervisor, not their job.” It’s true. Bring in managerial talent who are committed to an engaged workforce, then support them through ongoing training so they are inspiring the team members you worked so hard to find.
  4. Communicate frequently and often. Lack of communication is the most frequent concern we have heard from the tens of thousands of employees we have talked to around the country. It’s not that leaders want to hide what’s happening. More often, it's simply a case of being too busy. The outcome, however, results in being even busier. When people don’t know what’s going on, they make errors, and fail to connect to the company vision. Worst of all, when there is a lack of information, overactive imaginations kick in to fill the void. You've probably done it yourself if you were left out of a meeting or were kept out of the loop on an upcoming change. You probably made up all sorts of justifications or explanations, most of which were negative—and far from the truth. The combined effect decreases engagement and makes it tougher to keep the right people on your team.
  5. Listen more than you talk. I personally find this one difficult. When I was an administrator, there were times when I would literally bite my inner bottom lip to keep from interjecting. It’s not easy for all of us, but it’s an art that needs to be perfected if you are serious about keeping and attracting people who are passionate about their work.
  6. Share constant feedback. In my experience, employees would actually rather receive feedback that their job performance is poor than receive no feedback at all. Make sure you tell team members when they are doing a great job and give them a chance to improve. Focus on the positive and an employee’s strengths whenever possible and tie job performance back to the overall organizational goals.

The impending staffing crisis is not what any of us want, but as Caesar once said in his surely perfect Latin, “Alea iacta est.” The die has been cast. There is no going back. There will be a staffing shortage in the future if nothing changes. But there’s still time before those predictions are a reality, so take action.

As our field sifts during our crisis mode, all of the unnecessary bits, such as an excessive scrutiny of census and a disproportionate view of financials, will fall away. The outcomes we desire will ultimately depend on what’s left in the sieve: team members who are worth their weight in gold.  

Denise Boudreau-Scott is President of DRIVE, a consultancy that helps healthcare organizations improve the resident and staff experience. She is also a former nursing home and assisted living administrator. She can be reached at





Topics: Articles , Executive Leadership , Facility management , Leadership , Staffing