Pritma Chattha

In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Nurses Association (ANA) joined forces to celebrate nurses with the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

Originally created to honor the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and to elevate the critical role nurses play in transforming healthcare around the globe, the Year of the Nurse took on new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic as the visibility and appreciation for all that nurses do rose to new levels. 

In a year designated to honor and uplift nurses, too many nurses were instead placed in unimaginable circumstances, with nearly 80% of registered nurses saying the pandemic strained staffing in their unit to “unsafe levels.” WHO and ANA even extended the Year of the Nurse observance into 2021 to bring more attention to nurses’ unrelenting bravery during the crisis. 

But as 2021 and the Year of the Nurse have ended, healthcare leaders are no closer to addressing the rising nursing shortage, which has threatened the industry for decades but is now reaching record numbers. Experts predict an estimated shortage of 1.1 million nurses this year.

While nurses have long been overworked and undervalued, on the heels of COVID-19 and as more nurses reach retirement age or move away from patient care each year, the urgency to improve the situation has never been greater. Without more concerted efforts here, healthcare employers will continue to lose nursing employees — to vaccine mandates, burnout and poor workplace culture, among other reasons. 

As a former nurse myself, I’ve seen the toll that labor issues can take on existing staff. If healthcare organizations are going to have any chance at correcting the issue in the years to come, prioritizing a few key recruitment strategies will be mission critical in order to attract the best nursing talent and support that talent once hired so they can ultimately provide the best care to our communities. 

Expand the face of nursing 

Women have dominated the nursing profession throughout history, and that’s still true today, with females representing 91% of nurses. But this actually opens up some significant opportunities for healthcare employers to expand beyond their typical candidate pools. Healthcare employers need to fill their pipelines with a wider and more diverse group of applicants and demographics. 

Currently, about 50% of all employed Americans say they’re looking for a career change, with nearly a third hoping to switch industries altogether. With so many people thinking about changing careers, healthcare leaders have a huge opportunity to promote job openings and show these new applicants that healthcare is a field in which they can grow for many years to come. 

When it comes to current employees, leaders need to invest in upskilling and educating around the different careers possible across the industry. There’s also a lot of opportunity to recruit for hourly caregiver roles that don’t require extensive education, but with the right training, could offer employees a foot in the door for more skilled, long-term careers in healthcare. 

Reflect diversity in management 

Even with the highest proportion of women in addition to being one of the most racially diverse professions in healthcare, nursing doesn’t reflect the same diversity in its management roles — 55% of healthcare system leaders are white men.

The best thing current leaders can do to encourage more diversity in management is to support and promote diverse members of their existing staff. When diversity is reflected in leadership, those leaders are much more likely to establish genuine connections with current and prospective employees.

Ensuring similarities in the demographics of frontline workers and management also helps to foster goodwill across staff, which can help employees feel more comfortable to share feedback or concerns, and in turn, boosts employee retention. 

Arm nurses with burnout prevention resources 

Over three-quarters of American healthcare workers report feeling exhausted, burnt out and overwhelmed. Skilled nursing staff in particular are often reported to have higher burnout rates than hospital staff.

And after such an unprecedented time in history, healthcare employers have an increasing responsibility to support their nurses — from helping to create a safe workplace environment, offering flexible mental health days, ensuring seamless shift changes, and offering on-site or virtual Employee Assistance Programs. 

Bring back joy, passion and purpose to the profession 

Improving nurse staffing depends greatly on reenergizing current employees and helping them regain a passion for their work. Healthcare employers can help remove the various obstacles preventing today’s nurses from enjoying their work more by offering flexible benefits, recognizing and supporting their hard work and long hours, and getting to know more about their individual and professional goals. All healthcare workers have a drive and a sense of purpose, and by offering them real support, you’re honoring their purpose and making your workplace more welcoming for everyone. 

Living and working at the intersection of health, education and people, nurses have been deeply and unequally impacted by the pandemic. The decade ahead will test the nation’s nearly 6 million nurses in new and complex ways. It will demand a stronger, more diversified nursing workforce that is prepared to provide care and promote health and well-being among nurses, individuals, and communities. 

Pritma Chattha is a Yale-educated, doctorally-prepared nurse executive with 18 years of experience caring for patients at the bedside and in the boardroom. She is the VP of Healthcare Innovation at Apploi, a recruiting, onboarding, and credential management software company serving healthcare organizations. Chattha and her team are on a mission to modernize and speed up healthcare hiring while helping facilities reduce turnover and retain the best staff.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.