We’re living through a lot of big moments right now—the pandemic, the evolution of the workplace, and “The Great Resignation,” to name a few. And one thing that all three of these major events have in common is how hard they’ve hit the healthcare industry.
From February 2020 to now, nearly 1 in 5 healthcare workers have quit their jobs. In August 2021 alone, more than half a million healthcare employees quit. And this trend is only throwing more fuel on top of an existing problem: the shortage of qualified healthcare workers that existed even before the pandemic began.
The reasons for this mass exodus of qualified healthcare workers vary, with three of the most commonly cited issues being:
- Increased stress
- Insufficient pay
Regardless of the causes, the results of healthcare worker turnover are the same: Hospitals, practice owners, and other healthcare providers are struggling to retain employees and provide quality patient care.
But what if there was something employers could do to make their medical employees’ lives easier and therefore keep them on staff?
To answer this question, we surveyed nearly 300 healthcare employees who have considered leaving their current jobs to learn more about the issues they’re facing, what benefits have kept them from quitting, and what they hope to see from their employers in the future. We also spoke to HR industry analyst Brian Westfall to provide insights to key points throughout this report.
Burnout is real, and ‘The Great Resignation’ is only making it worse for those left behind
We recently published results of a physician survey on the topic of pandemic-related burnout that illustrated exactly how dire the situation is for doctors and therapists. Spoiler alert: It’s bad.
But the purpose of this newer survey (link to methodology below) was to focus exclusively on healthcare employees, excluding practice owners, founders, and executives, to understand what this demographic is currently dealing with and what factors are prompting the great healthcare worker resignation.
Turns out, it’s everything you expected—and more.
A majority of healthcare employees have experienced burnout since the onset of the pandemic, and as more workers leave, things are only getting worse for the employees left behind.
When asked what factors contributed to their burnout, the top response was increased workloads due to turnover. We also asked how many of their coworkers had quit since the pandemic, and the majority said their practice had lost between one and five employees.
Medical workers were already dealing with employee shortages before the pandemic, then you add an increased patient load due to the virus, plus you take away even more of their qualified, experienced coworkers; it’s no wonder we’re dealing with high rates of burnout and turnover today.
“To be clear, burnout stemming from the pandemic and the Great Resignation is not an issue that’s solely affecting healthcare workers. Everyone’s overloaded right now.
But the difference with healthcare is that it’s significantly more difficult to recruit and hire healthcare workers to fill the void when people quit. Medical professionals are taking on more work for longer, and the domino effects are catastrophic for the industry.”
We also asked healthcare employees how their roles have changed since the pandemic. Four out of five said their workload increased in some way, with over half saying they were forced to take on additional responsibilities that fell outside of their original job descriptions.
You may be able to guess where this is going, but I’ll skip to the end: Working in the healthcare industry is getting a lot harder to do, and we’re hemorrhaging qualified workers.
Over half of healthcare employees have considered quitting because the job is getting harder to do
All evidence indicates that this trend of healthcare workers quitting will continue. We asked our survey respondents if they had considered leaving their current jobs since the pandemic began, and over half said yes; 35% said they even thought about leaving the healthcare industry entirely.
We then split these respondents into two groups: those who had considered quitting, and those who hadn’t. We asked each group an open-ended question about why they felt the way they did, and the responses from the first group were compelling—and worth noting for any practice owners or healthcare employers who want to start deploying strategies to retain their qualified workers.
We grouped these open-ended responses into categories based on common key words, and by far the most common answer had to do with the pay and benefits of their current position being too good to walk away from.
The second-most popular answer, though, related to feelings of loyalty to their employers, the doctors they work with, and their coworkers. Many spoke about feelings of guilt if they were to leave their current teams in the middle of a crisis.
Finally, the third largest answer had to do with a sense of passion for the job and consideration for their patients.
Here are a few of the responses we received for this question:
- “There was a significant need for my services to the thousands of patients that I have treated over the years, and I wouldn’t feel right about leaving them at this time.”
- “People need me, I feel an obligation.”
- “I care too much for my patients and don’t want to leave them.”
- “I have had trouble finding other opportunities for equal pay. I also feel loyalty towards my organization and do not want them to suffer by me quitting.”
- “I feel like loyalty has kept me from leaving the practice that I currently run. I would have feelings of guilt leaving the practice when the majority of the employees have also stayed.”
- “I love my job and co-workers, and don’t want to place any more burden of being short staffed onto them.”
Reading through the collection of these individual responses reveals an inherent sense of nobility among healthcare workers.
Loyalty to employers, coworkers, and patients is a great motivator to help them power through difficult times, but the question is: will it be enough to counteract the increased burden and get them through the prolonged circumstances of the pandemic?
For many employees, the answer is likely no. If for no other reason than the fact that 91% said their job has become harder to do since the onset of the pandemic.
Most healthcare employers haven’t changed anything for their employees
To add to these difficulties and the increased burden on healthcare professionals, our survey indicates that medical employers are not doing as much as employees would like them to when it comes to making their jobs easier, which is a problem when it comes to healthcare employee retention.
We gave respondents a list of actions their employers may have taken to provide relief and offered three options:
- My employer did not do this
- My employer did this and it helped
- My employer did this but it did not help
We expected to see an equitable mix of responses depending on the action; however, what we found was the majority of respondents said their employers did not take any of the actions at all.
If you search for “COVID relief benefits for healthcare workers,” you’ll get a lot of results for independent programs collecting donations to fund relief efforts like this one for nurses, but not much else.
The fact is, the world of work changed dramatically for a lot of people, but for those frontline workers who could not do their jobs remotely, it only got worse.
And if things don’t change, employers will see consequences.
According to employees in our survey, the biggest change that needs to happen is hiring more staff. If they don’t, practices and hospitals risk even more employee turnover, and possibly being forced to close entirely.
Salary adjustments and telemedicine made the biggest difference to healthcare employees
I know what the big question is now: How?
How can employers attract new employees to their practices?
How can employers make the job easier for their current employees?
How can employers stop qualified workers from quitting?
Well, offering the right benefits is a great place to start.
We looked at responses from employees whose employers did offer new benefits to make their jobs easier to find out which of those benefits were the most beneficial.
Surprising nobody, raises were the most helpful things employers did to alleviate the burden on their employees since the pandemic began.
Flexibility in hours seemed to be the second-most highly valued benefit, with 59% saying remote working options through telemedicine services helped make their jobs easier, and 56% saying increased paid time off also helped.
Listen, I get that encouraging employers to give everyone a raise in an economic crisis and global pandemic is, maybe, a big ask. But there are a lot of good reasons for making this investment in your current qualified, experienced employees. And what’s more, it doesn’t have to be a huge raise to make a difference. We asked those respondents who said they did receive a raise or a one-time bonus how much it was, and 63% said between 1% and 3% of their base salary.
If raises and bonuses are simply not an option for your practice, consider this an opportunity to find alternative benefits that have not traditionally been offered to healthcare workers. Speak to your employees to find out what perks matter the most to them, then make adjustments based on their feedback.
The takeaway here is that qualified employees are an incredibly valuable commodity in the healthcare industry right now, and employee retention is the key to continuing to provide quality care to patients. Hospitals and practice owners absolutely must invest in their employees if they have any hope of making it through this pandemic—however much longer it takes.
For the 2021 Healthcare Employee Retention Survey, conducted in October 2021, we used screening questions to capture 987 medical employees (excluding practice owners, founders, and executives) who have been working at a healthcare facility with no more than 20 licensed providers for at least six months.
From there, we further narrowed the respondents down to 278 who have considered leaving their current jobs since the onset of the pandemic, but haven’t yet.
We worded all questions to ensure each respondent fully understood the meaning and topic at hand. Note: All percentages in charts may not add up to 100 due to rounding.