Many nurses are finding quitting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Among challenging workforce issues, how to retain nursing staff and reduce traveler/agency costs is at the top of most provider organizations’ agendas. Recent news may appear to signal welcome relief.

While everyone talks about traveler pay, research is revealing there can be major downsides for nurses who chose this path, too. A recent survey conducted by nurse.org found the following key trends:

  • 70% of travel nurses feel unappreciated
  • 73% of travel nurses feel unsafe at work
  • Travel nurses have felt more uncomfortable making decisions outside of their comfort zone/moral code in the past year than other nurses
  • Agency/travel nurses were least likely to say “Nursing is a great career”

In addition to these issues, the demand for travelers is falling. In Kaiser Health News, writer Hannah Normal reported that national demand for agency/traveler nurses dropped by one third in March/April. She also found numerous examples of contracts being abruptly cancelled or rates slashed by 50 percent.

For healthcare providers concerned about how to attract and retain permanent nursing staff, this may all seem cause for celebration. But there’s a critical, introspective question organizations should be asking themselves at this pivotal point. Are we well positioned for the potential “great return” of nurses to permanent positions?

Yes, pay and benefits must be competitive. But beyond these and other hygiene factors, employees today are looking for companies that offer a workplace culture that values them as individuals and their personal development.

Here are four solid ideas drawn from our work with healthcare organizations across the country that we believe can jump-start your strategies to recruit and retain nursing staff.

Reach out to the “stars” who have recently left

Smart leaders have always stayed in touch with individuals who they admire and respect, even if they decide to pursue another opportunity. Now, that practice needs to be even more widespread, consistent, and structured.

Human Resources should be able to pull a list of staff members who have left over the past 1-2 years. After prioritizing those individuals who you’d love to have back on your team, the most effective reconnection is an individualized, personal one. That can be a phone call, email note, or social media private message (if you’re already connected).

The idea is to make this call a welcome, flattering surprise, not a high-pressure sales pitch. The tone and approach should communicate, “I’m interested in how you’re doing,” not “What will it take to rehire you?” That said, the call should end with the clear message, “If you ever decide to make a change, we’d love to have you back.”

Celebrate “boomerangs”

Several companies I’ve worked with proudly talk about their boomerang employees who have left and then decide to come back. They consider it the highest compliment and endorsement of their organization that a former colleague can make.

Early in my career, I worked for a company that was known for letting great employees come back. But there was one catch: they were “punished” during their initial year back with crappy assignments. We all likened it to spending a year in Siberia.

Obviously, that philosophy doesn’t fly in today’s labor market. Taking a “prodigal son” philosophy toward those who express interest in returning can pay big dividends.

Make it worth their while to return

The line between attracting candidates and rewarding loyalty is a tough one to walk, especially in today’s unprecedented labor market.  In a conversation with hospital frontline staff a few months ago, they related the story of an outstanding nurse who was willing to come back after resigning a few months earlier. The organization’s policy was to not pay the signing bonus for employees who wanted to return within one year. Interestingly, current staff said, “Pay the bonus! We want her back!”

Maybe it made sense to pay the bonus; maybe it didn’t. The bigger question is what rules that made sense a year ago do we need to change today? For example, can we restore a staff member’s level of seniority and all the perks associated with that? How about restoring the PTO bank they had remaining when they left?

Unprecedented times call for non-traditional thinking. “First, break all the rules” (borrowed from the best-selling book from The Gallup Organization over 20 years ago) may be today’s best philosophy when it comes to policies around recruitment and retention.

Continuously invest in workplace culture

Healthcare learned decades ago that quality improvement must be continuous. The same mindset should apply to the quality of the workplace culture and human capital strategies. Research is clear that employees today want a work environment where they feel valued and can be at their very best – both to join an organization and then to stay for the long-term.

Gallup studies tell us that the most predictive factor in staff engagement is the manager an employee reports to. Unfortunately, we’re finding that our hard-working middle managers are in many cases more burned out than the staff members who work for them. If we truly care about the work environment we create for frontline staff, investing in the development and success of frontline leaders has to be organizations’ top priority.

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