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Our Take

The Mandate for Workforce Recovery

10 Minute Read

Workforce burnout is a long-standing challenge for hospitals and health systems. But when Covid-19 emerged, the challenge magnified as the health care workforce simultaneously managed their own health concerns, added work, and emotional stress presented by the pandemic. Health care leaders are now seeing a workforce that is increasingly burned out and leaving their roles at an unprecedented rate.

Leaders must invest in the space and support for their workforce to recover from their experiences across the pandemic. If staff are not able to restore a sense of physical and emotional wellbeing, health care organizations should brace for continued turnover and a long-term burnout challenge.


The conventional wisdom

Workforce burnout has been a long-standing challenge for hospitals and health systems, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of burnout is far reaching, impacting turnover, absenteeism, engagement, and quality.

In response, health system leaders continue to implement and sustain a variety of system- and individual-level support services to address workforce burnout. Initiatives range from staff recognition, meditation rooms, critical incident debriefs, employee assistance programs, removing administrative burdens, and care team redesign. These initiatives have been successful at mitigating some drivers of burnout and addressing specific instances of burnout for targeted groups of staff.

Nothing could have prepared organizations for the length and sustained pressure that all staff have faced since the emergence of Covid-19. An already burned out workforce has had to manage the added work, health concerns, collective trauma, and emotional stress presented by the pandemic. On top of this, staff continue to witness and experience the ongoing racial injustices and violence present in our society that are now coming to the forefront of national conversation and activism.


Our take

Leaders are now managing a workforce that requires different types of support than traditional burnout tactics, and on a scale that we’ve never seen before. Covid-19 changed the health care workforce. Staff are experiencing a multitude of challenging, enduring experiences causing fear, exhaustion, isolation, distress, and trauma. These experiences range from concerns about job loss and financial security, fear of death, seeing patients die alone, isolation and stress from working at home or distancing from loved ones, and witnessing national social unrest. As a result, burnout increased, with 71% of physicians and 55% of health care workers overall reporting feelings of burnout. On top of this, 48% of care providers have considered retiring, quitting their jobs, or changing their careers after the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as vaccinations become more accessible, the health care workforce will feel the effects of this pandemic for months and years to come.

Health care organizations need to invest now in creating the space and support for their workforce to recover from their experiences during the pandemic. Recovery must be a distinct and prolonged period dedicated to healing and restoring staff's physical and emotional well-being. The aim is broader than mitigating burnout or driving engagement, which requires a scaled set of accessible support that meets the depth and breadth of staff needs. Whether staff voice this need for support or not, health care workers have experienced fear, exhaustion, isolation, distress, and trauma. In this moment, organizations need to consider not only the stressors happening in the workplace, but also those that have happened in people's personal lives during the pandemic and impact staff's ability to continue to "show up" (in mind and body) at work.

Helping staff recover immediately after a traumatic event can reduce the long-term effects they may experience. For example, data from past experiences with viral diseases, such as SARS, shows that affected health care workers experienced significantly higher levels of burnout, psychological distress, and post-traumatic stress for up to years after the fact. Organizations should not skip, rush, or delay recovery support. Doing so could lead to negative consequences for staff, patients, and the organization immediately and in the next few years. A workforce that cannot recover is more likely to make errors resulting in patient safety challenges or dips in quality. Staff are also more likely to leave the organization or profession altogether, hurting retention and engagement efforts.

Organizations need to invest in supporting staff recovery. In fact, that needs to be their most important workforce goal in the next year. There is not a specific end date that organizations can plan for, rather it’s the end state where staff have emotionally and physically recovered from their experiences during the pandemic. This also won’t be easy. The unprecedented scale and prolonged duration of Covid-19 presents a new challenge, with an expanded set of solutions.


Three steps to help your workforce recover

To ensure staff can recover from the pandemic, health care executives should pursue the three steps below. Within each step, we offer guidance on how to think about your organization’s strategy.

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  • Step

    Audit your existing support to decide what to scale or scrap

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  • Step

    Craft a comprehensive recovery plan that centers around staff experiences

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  • Step

    Make resources easily accessible to boost utilization and scale impact

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Parting thoughts

Health care workers encounter crises regularly, but Covid-19 was at an unprecedented scale. Organizations need to help their staff on the road to recovery.

Advisory Board has resources to support this effort. Review the list of resources below to learn strategies and tactics leaders need to support their workforce.

Strategic guidance for workforce recovery

Case studies to support workforce recovery

For additional support, please contact AskAdvisory with questions.

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