How Healthcare HR Teams are Raising the Bar During COVID-19

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David Rice
05/06/2020

Coronavirus nurse

Amid the news of healthcare staff struggling to find enough personal protective equipment to ensure their safety, concerns over ventilator supplies and patients fighting for their lives in ICUs, another story is often overlooked.

Human Resource departments are facing a challenge unlike any they have before. This situation has highlighted any number of problems, from how healthcare organizations operate from a business perspective to how understaffed many are in facing this crisis.

Healthcare as an industry has long faced a staffing problem. If you’ve taken a glance at the nurse to patient ratios in recent years, you know this story. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected 11 million additional nurses are needed to avoid a further shortage. Employment opportunities for nurses were projected to grow at a faster rate (15%) than all other occupations through 2026.

And now, in the midst of a pandemic, the industry faces perhaps its biggest challenge yet. Busy hospitals in places where COVID-19 has hit the community hard are coping with difficult circumstances. The pandemic has caused the cancellation of voluntary and non-emergency procedures, an important revenue generator for hospitals who now need money for everything from PPE to increased staff hours.

This has left leaders with difficult decisions and HR departments trying to keep the workforce engaged and able to fight burnout.

Effect on Morale

Medical professions are often difficult to begin with. Hospitals are high stress environments, with as many as 25% of nurses meeting the criteria for suffering from PTSD. Burnout is common among doctors and nurses alike, and is coupled with a high first year turnover rate as many new nurses struggle to cope with the reality of the job.

So what about under the current circumstances? What are HR teams having to do keep staff from suffering from burnout, fatigue and disenchantment? How can HR improve the employee view of the situation?

“We have to look at this question in two distinct ways: 1) During COVID-19 and 2) Post COVID-19,” Sebastien Girard, Senior VP of Workforce Engagement at Atrium Health said. “During the crisis, when we are all facing the unknown which creates uncertainty and fear, it is all about being present, recognition, empathy and offering the necessary resources to address the hardship of COVID-19 (ERG, multi-faith chaplains, etc.).

“Defining the Post COVID-19 era is as important. Currently, our healthcare teammates are operating on adrenalin. Once the crisis is in the rearview mirror, the adrenalin will crash. Having clear action plans to address engagement, fatigue, burnout, time off and PTSD is key. Communication, leadership visibility and strong feedback mechanisms can make a difference.”

WEBINAR: The Importance of Gathering Employee Feedback During a Crisis

Given the well documented need for nursing staff and the current state of the job market, it’s logical to suggest that more people may be interested in taking on a career in healthcare, but the reality isn’t quite as straightforward as that.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” Girard said. “People work in healthcare because it is a calling, not a “just” a job. With the current pandemic, we will all have six degrees of separation to a case that will impact our life. In addition, it is in period of crisis that we are witnessing communities and humans truly supporting each other. In an economy with a very high unemployment rate and having healthcare as an industry that will still need to recruit once this is over, I think it is an educated guess that more people will want to help and join the industry.”

Talent Acquisition and Onboarding

The talent acquisition process is changing for any business that is hiring. The first reaction for many healthcare organizations was not to ramp up hiring, but to reassign the staff on hand.

“We had to morph our Talent Acquisition efforts into recruiting and redeployment,” Girard said. “One way to keep everyone employed was to first try to fill any internal needs with teammates from operations that were slowing down, then attract externally.”

READ: Talent Acquisition: From HR to an Experience Function

Obviously, given the workforce shortage in healthcare, looking out into the talent pool isn’t necessarily easy for HR and recruitment teams, but it’s something that has had to happen at scale and with a new sense of urgency. Technology, as you might expect, has been at the forefront of this effort.

“Due to COVID-19, it became a necessity to design rapid hiring, orientation, and onboarding processes in order to be prepared for the possible patient surge scenarios,” Karen Power, senior VP of Talent at Novant Health said. “Optimizing the use of technology, you can engage the new team member much earlier in the process versus the traditional ways of doing orientation, which is a positive.”  

Technology is changing the way the entire process unfolds. Recruitment specialists are having to embrace technology where they can to ensure a streamlined process so that by the end of the hiring journey, onboarding steps have already begun.

“Your recruiters can augment virtually as well,” Power says. “After all, they really should be relationship managers to the new hires already. I wouldn’t recommend skipping any critical steps such as background checks, but you really can design to do many steps in a parallel versus traditional linear approach.”

Something HR teams have had to consider in hiring and hopefully retaining new nurses beyond the pandemic comes in setting expectations. Girard emphasized the need to set a clear picture of the effects the crisis is having on the hospital so that new staff know exactly what to expect.

First impressions are powerful. How employees go through the onboarding process and how they start their career with the organization is always a determining factor in how engaged they are and whether or not they’ll remain on board. But under these circumstances, reaching them in the right way with the right message is vital.

“You have to think across the different generations of your audience and think about tailoring some things while keeping the overall process agile and still providing an experience that reflects your organization’s brand and culture,” Power says. “Initial experience = first impressions, impressions that can stay with the new team member and tends to give a lens through which they view experiences that come after. You have to think about how you want to shape that lens or frame of reference for them and design from there to have a meaningful onboarding that is sustainable in rapidly changing environments, but does not short change the experience that sets the course for your new hires.” 

Photo Courtesy of: Pexels

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