Kimberly Marselas

I spent nearly a month this summer examining your reflections on working in nursing homes.

I read through nurse leaders’ comments about dissatisfaction with pay, the decreasing meaning in their jobs and their inability to just escape it all (even for a measly long weekend).

I interviewed the experts on whether things might get better and when.

And then I watched improving jobs data trickle in this fall, with a Bureau of Labor Statistics report finding that the sector picked up more than 12,000 jobs in August, tripling its performance in most recent months.

Maybe things were trending in the right direction, I thought.

But this week brought the publication of OnShift’s latest worker survey, which asked a bigger group of nursing home and senior living workers for their thoughts on being in the LTC workforce. 

Remarkably, that survey found about 60% had considered quitting their jobs in the last year — just a sliver under what our 2022 McKnight’s Mood of the Market survey had found regarding a three-month lookback.

How depressing.

Despite providers’ best efforts to improve pay, make jobs flexible where they can and get creative with when and where they recruit, the people they already have in the fold — the ones keeping them open to this point — keep threatening to walk away.

But maybe there’s one change that will bring a smile to workers’ faces again, while also making those smiles visible for all the world to see.

There is simply no greater reminder of the pandemic and its daily stresses (let’s call that a major understatement) than the ubiquitous masks those working in nursing homes have had to wear up until now.

That’s why it’s such welcome news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stripped away that requirement in all areas except those with high community transmission rates. That means even staff who are not up-to-date on vaccinations can show their faces again.

What better way could there be to remind frontline workers and potential frontline workers about the joys that can come with caring for vulnerable seniors and getting those facing major health crises back on their feet? A hiring manager, front desk staff or dining area full of smiling faces certainly sends a powerful message about culture and potential job satisfaction.

Could this be the difference-maker that long-term care employers have been waiting for?

I know plenty of healthcare workers who have been more than willing to wear a mask to keep themselves, their patients and their loved ones safe from the coronavirus. But even the most devoted among them can admit they’ve missed seeing colleagues’ faces, and being able to breathe more freely and avoid fogged glasses.

Yes, SNF workers will still need to be vaccinated to come onto the payroll. They’ll still need to follow other federal, state and provider rules that could change again quickly if COVID conditions do.

But here’s hoping that being surrounded again by smiling faces is as good for individuals in skilled nursing as it is for the business of skilled nursing itself.

If not, we’ll surely get some fresh surveys to frown about soon.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.