The Great Resignation is sending health care workers out of the industry in massive numbers, and this, coupled with the ongoing transformation of health care, is creating the perfect storm. Alleviating their stress, burnout, and disengagement is a necessary first step. But the proper development, training, and upskilling is also crucial.
Pandemic-weary health care workers are resigning in alarming numbers. Since February 2020, nearly 1 in 5 have quit their jobs. US hospitals will need to hire 200,000 nurses and 122,000 physicians every year, and the World Health Organization’s State of the World's Nursing Report predicts a global shortfall of more than 10 million nurses.
This is not a new trend—labor shortfalls have afflicted health care for years. But the pandemic accelerated the burnout, lack of engagement, and uneven work-life balance that drives professionals out of health care. A 2021 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly 30% of health care workers are considering leaving their profession altogether. Almost 60% reported mental health issues stemming from their work during COVID-19.
This is a dangerous state of affairs, but it can change. An especially productive solution is upskilling. Gallup research repeatedly finds that development is a primary attractant of a new job—especially among younger workers—and a crucial element of engagement. And health care workers are keen for development. A 2021 Gallup/Amazon study showed that among health care workers:
Nonetheless, upskilling is comparatively uncommon; health care workers have fewer opportunities to upskill than do service members, construction workers, miners, protective service officers, life and social scientists, legal professionals, social workers, architects, engineers, computer scientists, managers, teachers, and librarians—in that order. Health care support staff are even further down the list.
Gallup's work with health care clients globally, as well as decades of research, highlight 3 strategies to reverse this trend, engage health care workers, make the industry future-ready.
First, Manage Stress and Burnout
At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Gallup found that fewer than half (49%) of health care workers strongly agreed their employer cares about their well-being. Remedying that perception—which can have devastating downstream impact on individuals, organizations, and ultimately patients—must precede upskilling. And an upskilling initiative can’t come at the expense of employees’ well-being or it will exacerbate burnout.
Therefore, Gallup’s first recommendation is to promote holistic well-being by supporting employees’ physical, community, social, financial, and career needs—to which upskilling contributes because it helps employees grow in their careers.
That said, upskilling itself has a positive effect on well-being. The Gallup/Amazon study showed that 61% of workers who participated in upskilling agree that it increased their overall job satisfaction and 53% said it improved their standard of living. More than half (59%) say upskilling improved their quality of life.
Focus on Future Skilling
New technologies and scientific breakthroughs—such as those in genomics, diagnostics and testing, robotics, precision medicines, and new vaccine research—are changing old ways of working. Even delivery of care must adapt to new platforms: Gallup research shows an explosion in virtual health care usage and the intention to use it in the future.
Further, the structure of care teams is changing. Modern health care’s anytime/anywhere settings—as many put it, "wards without walls," change the way care is delivered as well as the kinds of professionals who provide it, including social workers, population health managers, technologists, and data scientists.
That necessitates new digital and technological know-how in a technology-aware and technology-enabled workforce. Benchmarking upskilling with other industries (eg, benchmarking telehealth with other sectors digitalizing service interfaces) and redefining roles toward a more comprehensive job description aligned with the future demands would be a considerable benefit. And though many legacy employees don't see the value of digital competence, a significant number of do. The Gallup-Amazon study found that among all employees, 27% of health care workers expressed interest in obtaining technical/digital skills, though only 6% participated in upskilling for those skills.
There is no doubt that digital acuity must be an essential requirement of health care education to ensure future-ready new workers. But focusing on specific upskilling fulfills specific needs for the organization and results in more trained workers sooner. It may boost expenses—72% of health care workers want employer-sponsored training and 66% want it provided during regular working hours—though costs can be reduced by auditing current skills and experiences, and reviewing supply and demand in the talent pool. Gallup recommends leaders then structure training and development to align with career progression, employee well-being, and engagement.
Treat Upskilling as a Critical Engagement Builder
High-engagement organizations are more profitable, have fewer workplace safety issues, and much lower turnover, but engagement is lower in health care relative to other sectors. Gallup finds that only 40% of health care workers are satisfied across a set of 11 dimensions of job quality of importance to workers. The average among all US workers is 49%. Moreover, only 39% of health care workers give a high overall evaluation of their job, compared with the US average of 45%.
Upskilling reverses that trend. Almost half, 48% of health care workers who recently participated in upskilling say they “are in a good job,” compared with just 32% who had no opportunity to upskill, and over half of those who want upskilling are willing to leave for an employer who offers it.
Besides the engagement boost—though possibly related to it—training also helps retain workers. The primary motivator for seeking a new job is the chance to learn and grow in a new role, and those who express the highest interest in upskilling are much more likely to be actively looking for a new job (35% vs 18%) and rate their probability of quitting approximately 3 times higher than health care workers with little interest in upskilling (37% vs 12%).
Individual development plans, orchestrated by managers, are a highly effective place to launch engagement and upskilling goals. Employees are 2.8 times likelier to be engaged when they strongly agree that they’ve had a development-focused conversation with their managers in the last 6 months, and those conversations can pinpoint both the organization’s and the individual’s needs.
In health care, such conversations should prioritize the skills and experiences that help employees become future-fluent. Managers should emphasize the value proposition of these future skills and how acquiring them will help employees advance their careers and professional growth.
Training programs and certifications are critical. They provide an industry-standard education and bolster employees' credentials, but they’re no substitute for real, lived experiences. Unfortunately, there has been no dearth of learning from adversity lately, which should be included in upskilling program. Those experiences have much value and they reinforce workers’ capacities when they’re assigned to stretch goals, position rotation assignments, mentoring, and coaching. Those experiences push people out of their comfort zone, which is where real development occurs. In fact, Gallup's research published on AJMC.com highlighted 6 experiences critical for physician development.
Upskilling for the Future
The future of health care is complex and uncertain. The Great Resignation is sending health care workers out of the industry in massive numbers, and this, coupled with the ongoing transformation of health care, is creating the perfect storm.
Alleviating their stress, burnout, and disengagement is a necessary first step. But the proper development, training, and upskilling is also crucial. Without it, great talent will leave the industry. Health care organizations must do more to arrest turnover and drive employee and career engagement up.
Health care leaders have a significant asset, however—their employees’ desire to learn, grow, and develop. Workers who want to do more, achieve more, and meet the future well-prepared are the solution to the problem. And as Gallup shows, most of the health care workforce is ready to begin.
Jennifer Robison, senior editor at Gallup, contributed to this article.