Long before the arrival of COVID-19, healthcare and frontline workers were at serious risk for burnout. A 2019 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that physician burnout costs the U.S. healthcare system a whopping $4.6 billion annually—and that figure was a “conservative” estimate and didn’t take into account non-physician frontline workers.
Since the pandemic, frontline workers have faced countless burdens, including staff shortages, overwhelmed hospitals, limited resources, administrative constraints, and constant dealings with grief. In September 2021, the American Nurses Association declared a “crisis-level human resource shortage of nurses” in a letter addressed to the Department of Health and Human Services and a report published one year into the COVID-19 pandemic showed 43 percent of respondents were thinking of leaving the healthcare profession in 2021.
At home, workers face additional challenges, including virtual schooling, a stressful 24/7 news cycle, financial strain, and social isolation due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19, as well as increased mental health concerns.
Many healthcare organizations turn to whole-person care to support their patients through their healthcare journeys, but is that same attention paid to their staff? Given the rise in burnout and resignation, retention is a top agenda item for many organizations, including health plans and healthcare systems, but what would it mean to support staff in the same way we care for patients? And what could this look like in practice?
1. Prioritize mental health with preventative care
A 2020 survey by Mental Health America (MHA) found that 82 percent of healthcare workers were emotionally exhausted, 70 percent were having trouble sleeping, and 63 percent experienced work-related dread.
Providence, a Washington-based hospital system with 52 hospitals across seven states, announced in 2021 a $220 million investment to address staffing needs, putting a strong emphasis on employee mental health and wellbeing. They announced an effort to provide “almost unlimited access to mental health resources, including 25 free behavioral health visits.”
In addition to offering free counseling or mental health support, employers should consider taking other actions to address the mental health of their employees. You can offer your staff free meditation apps or mindfulness guides, invest in in-person initiatives to reduce worker stress—such as adding spaces for physical activity, overhauling breakrooms, or providing white noise to drown out environmental stressors.
2. Consider the benefit of bonuses and wage increases
During COVID-19, retention and recruitment bonuses, “thank you” payments, and wage increases have become common strategies to express appreciation for overworked and overwhelmed employees and recruit new staff.
In January 2022, Cincinnati’s UC Health increased its minimum wage to $15/hour and rolled out market pay adjustments and an incentive program. At Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey, employees received bonuses of up to $1,500 and in New York, Governor Kathy Hochul created a $10 billion plan to recruit and retain full-time healthcare workers.
Money won’t be – and cannot be – the only solution to the growing crisis, but bonuses and wage increases can provide financial relief for the millions of essential healthcare and frontline workers currently working in low-paying positions.
3. Take housing needs into account
Housing costs have skyrocketed across the United States, often pricing healthcare workers out of the very communities they serve. In South Carolina, Memorial Hospital launched a homebuyer assistance program, which provides eligible employees with up to $10,000 for down payments and closing costs.
In Idaho, as housing costs rose to unprecedented levels, hospital employees were forced to quit or turn down jobs. Between 2019 and 2021, the monthly cost of a three-bedroom rental in the tourist town of Wood River rose by nearly 55 percent. In response, St. Luke's Health System and St. Luke's Wood River Foundation invested in subsidized housing options for employees by purchasing or building single-family homes and duplexes and offering short-term employee occupancy.
Not every employer can offer affordable housing, but additional efforts should be considered. Those living in older homes or facing financial constraints would benefit from supplemental funding, weatherization services, utility upgrades, and other housing-related assistance.
4. Offer student loan repayment and financial counseling
Student loan debt is a major source of stress for many healthcare workers. In fact, healthcare workers have more student loan debt than any other industry employee. Programs that offer financial counseling or student loan support are becoming more popular among hospital systems.
Illinois’s Silver Cross Hospital is partnering with Lewis University College of Nursing and Health Sciences to tackle the issue of student loan debt among healthcare graduates, providing up to $27,000 in loan repayment to those students who work at Silver Cross after graduating.
In Pennsylvania, Crozer Health will provide nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists with student loan repayment of up $10,000 annually per person, maxing out at $50,000 per person over 5 years. Peter Adamo, Crozer Health CEO, said in the press release, “We are glad to be able to help alleviate the heavy student loan burden that so many of our nurses and therapists carry."
With or without debt, healthcare and frontline workers can benefit from financial education courses – and employers can partner with companies and organizations that provide these for free or at a low cost.
5. Recognize childcare and parenting support needs
COVID-19 continues to disrupt in-person schooling and childcare, putting additional burdens on healthcare and frontline workers. According to a Mental Health America survey, nearly 50 percent of healthcare workers with children said parenting and virtual education were “causing them a lot or a great deal of stress.”
To support employees with children, employers should offer flexible work schedules, on-site childcare or childcare stipends, and family leave whenever possible. When COVID-19 surges happen and schools turn virtual, employees are forced to call off and stay home, putting additional burdens on an already strained staff.
WellStar Health System in Georgia worked with childcare facility experts to design on-site childcare centers for their hospitals. The Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta now has a childcare center “with 17 classrooms, multipurpose spaces, and outdoor play areas.”
Designer Portia Ellis told reporters, “We are hearing from our hospital clients that nearby child care is something they want to offer, not just as an employee perk but to support their central mission of patient care.”
6. Data and partnerships can support whole-person care
Social drivers impact everyone and healthcare workers, of course, are no exception. Employers should consider surveying employees and collecting company data in order to better understand staff social needs. Such data can then inform next steps, such as establishing partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs) or developing in-house initiatives that center on the wellbeing of workers. are no exception. Employers should consider surveying employees and collecting company data in order to better understand their staff’s social needs. This data can then inform the next steps, such as establishing partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs) or developing in-house initiatives that support prevalent needs.
Here at Healthify, powered by WellSky, we’re working on building a world where no one’s health is hindered by their need. Part of our solutions to addressing social care is facilitating relationships between healthcare and community organizations so referrals can be easily coordinated, tracked, and closed.
You can learn more about our work here.