How to Get Nurses Back on the (Better) Job

By Jeff Richards

The country has lost a lot of nurses and it needs to get them back.

About 100,000 nurses left the profession from 2020 through 2021, a 40-year record set during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. To make it worse, many of them were under the age of 35 and most were employed in hospitals. And the staffing crisis has not ended with the easing of the pandemic. According to a report by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), more than 800,000 nurses – one-fifth of the total workforce – intend to leave by 2027, citing stress, burnout and retirement. 

While the pandemic drastically worsened the nursing shortage, it was not the sole cause of it. The nursing population, like so many other professions, is aging. There are approximately one million nurses over age 50, meaning a third of the workforce will be at retirement age in 10 to 15 years. Paradoxically, as these Baby Boomer nurses retire, they will help create a need for more nurses.   

“The data is clear: the future of nursing and of the U.S. healthcare ecosystem is at an urgent crossroads,” said Maryann Alexander, NCSBN Chief Officer of Nursing Regulation. “The pandemic has stressed nurses to leave the workforce and has expedited an intent to leave in the near future, which will become a greater crisis and threaten patient populations if solutions are not enacted immediately.”

Hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities have had to operate at diminished capacity because they do not have enough nurses. This threatens the quantity and quality of care available to patients. Healthcare has taken notice of the crisis and is taking belated steps to address it.   

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced awards of more than $100 million to train more nurses and grow the workforce. These investments will address the increasing demand for registered nurses, nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and nurse faculty. The American Hospital Association has undertaken programs to retain and attract nurses, including paying back student loans, providing childcare and transportation, and implementing programs that address mental and physical health. 

Retention strategies are not enough

While these efforts are praiseworthy, retaining current nurses and recruiting new ones will not resolve this crisis. We need many of the experienced nurses who left their profession in the past four years to come back. While some have, the number needs to be much higher to alleviate the shortage, at least in the short term.

Of course, many of these nurses are not coming back. They’ve either found other work or are enjoying their well-earned retirements. But I believe there are tens of thousands of others who would come back if conditions were improved.

No one goes into nursing for the paycheck or because they think it will be an easy job. They become nurses because they have a calling and for some, even those driven from the profession by Covid-19 or burnout, that desire still flickers within.

However, even those who miss nursing the most are unlikely to return to a job with the same problems that caused them to leave in the first place. 

In the past few years, nurses have gone on strike across the country. In many cases, higher pay wasn’t their main demand. Instead, they’re fighting for better working conditions and increased staffing levels that would allow them to deliver care in the way they knew it should be delivered. That indicates what matters most to them. 

Reskilling and re-recruitment strategies

Healthcare organizations that need nurses must make it easier and more attractive for them to return. They can do this by being more flexible in scheduling to accommodate nurses who’d like to come back part-time and to allow more of a work-life balance. Investments in workforce management technology that allow employers greater transparency and control can help achieve that.

These technology platforms also make it easier for nurses who might prefer to work short-term or do shift work to return to the profession.  

Rather than depending on staffing agencies to supply contract workers, healthcare systems can use these solutions to more efficiently manage their internal resource pool of nurses, therapists, technicians and other employees. This reduces reliance on agencies, saves money, and benefits workers.

Another powerful recruitment tool is offering reskilling opportunities. This involves giving current and returning nurses the training they need to practice a different type of nursing than what they had done previously. Enabling nurses to move from acute care to long-term care or from ambulatory care to school nursing could entice some to return or stay in the field. And, in some cases, that would allow them to earn more pay – another incentive. And, unlike nursing school which can take four years, reskilling usually requires only four to six weeks of additional training. 

Nursing is never going to be an easy profession. It’s difficult, demanding work that requires a special kind of person. That’s not going to change. But nursing can be made more accommodating and more flexible in order to allow nurses who left to return to the field and thrive under improved conditions. Jeff Richards is chief development and operations officer of SnapCare, an AI-enabled workforce marketplace that serves the entire continuum of care.

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