The pandemic has hammered long-term care on numerous operational fronts, from testing the field’s infection control capabilities to depressing occupancy rates. One of the hardest-hit areas has been staffing.

Kezia Scales, Ph.D., director of policy research for PHI, a nonprofit geared to offering information and advocacy about frontline workers in post-acute care, noted to McKnight’s that the staffing shortage “is exponentially worse right now.”

A PHI report released in September on key facts about direct-care workers underscored her point. It stated that 1 in 6 nursing homes (17%) reported a shortage of nursing assistants.

The current workforce squeeze stems from the toll that fighting the virus has taken on staff, according to the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living. 

“Some long-term care workers have become ill or are quarantined and cannot return to work, while others cannot work due to a lack of childcare options,” AHCA/NCAL said.   

Communication key 

One of the most important tools facilities can use to improve retention is communication, a staffing expert emphasized to McKnight’s. Feeling a lack of support can lead an employee to leave a job, said Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, senior vice president of engagement solutions for Align, a firm that works to increase employee engagement with seniors.

She likened the emergency situation nursing homes are living through now to when she worked as a nursing assistant in Duluth, MN, during a snowstorm. Working short-staffed, the “we’re in this together” spirit was pivotal, she noted.

“That feeling is possible, but it really does come down to the message of that management team,” she explained.

Anderson suggested that organizations review their communication processes to help employees feel more informed regarding the situation with personal protective equipment and evolving testing requirements.

“What processes do you have in place to routinely and consistently communicate with employees?” she offered. “It’s not just the newsletter you might produce on a monthly basis or all-staff meeting once a month. It’s two-way communication that is more essential than ever right now. That can be through employee rounds; that could be the best way. The managers are actually getting out onto the unit, into the departments and talking to employees.”

Strengthen management team

Creating a strong management team is just as essential.

“The strength of that team will absolutely impact the retention and engagement of employees,” Anderson said.

She emphasized that taking the time to demonstrate to employees that they matter goes further than more temporary fixes.

“The gift cards and pizza parties and potlucks are fun things to do, but that’s not the stuff that makes a difference,” Anderson said. “That’s not the stuff that lasts. It comes down to basic human connection and how people are treated.”