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Just who will take care of mom and dad?

October 1, 2007
by Paul R. Willging, PhD
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In recent articles attempting to predict the future for nursing facilities and assisted living, I suggested that both these professional settings share a common challenge: personnel. Where, I asked, are competent caregivers going to come from? There is no question that absent qualified staff, it's nigh on impossible to provide acceptable levels of service. And absent acceptable levels of services, we are likely to see increasingly disgruntled customers—in both sectors of the continuum.

And what is the likely result of that? Well, if history is any guide, the inevitable result will be more and more regulation.

And why is that? Well, we've traditionally focused on the most facile answer: Government has a propensity to ignore cause and effect. Nursing homes have traditionally been inappropriately staffed, not because management chose to, but because management couldn't afford to appropriately staff them. Government, the primary funding source for nursing homes, has shown itself unwilling or incapable of addressing the root cause of the problem: resources. It attempts, rather, to control the effects by simply increasing its demands for improved quality and totally ignoring the nexus with resources.

And why is assisted living preordained to suffer the same fate? Assisted living has proclaimed itself for years as the low-cost alternative to nursing homes. But only by increasing salaries can assisted living recruit additional staff. Higher salaries mean higher costs. Higher costs mean higher monthly rents, and assisted living loses whatever competitive edge it might have held vis-à-vis nursing facilities.

Both articles I wrote on these issues inspired enough reaction by my readers to prompt the editor of this publication to suggest an entire article dealing solely with workforce issues. Initially, I was skeptical about this—as if I had the solutions to the critical issues of workforce recruitment (and retention)! But, as it turns out, there are potential solutions to both problems. And, it dawned on me, the two are inextricably intertwined.

If you recruit badly, you can't hire. But worse, you can't retain. In fact, as important as filling the vacant position might be, your ultimate goal in recruitment should be retention. That is where the ultimate payoff is going to come.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's begin with the basic recognition that workforce issues are, indeed, the most critical of all those facing long-term care managers. Ours is an industry of caregivers. I've stated more than once that buildings don't provide care, people do. And that presents a challenge that keeps more than one community or facility manager awake at night.

We start, of course, with multiple disadvantages. Let's face it: The work is not easy. The pay is not good. The profession's reputation (rightly or wrongly) leaves something to be desired. In short, this is not an auspicious start to the recruitment process.

Not a week goes by that some assisted living or nursing facility doesn't make the press for its alleged shortcomings in care. As for the difficulty of the work, it's both physically and psychologically wearing. Let's look at the role of nursing aides, for example, who constitute more than 60% of nursing home staff. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan, nursing aides indicated that lifting patients, insufficient personnel resources, injuries from violent patients, and the possibility of acquiring communicable diseases at work were among their major environmental stressors. Psychosocial stressors were a lack of appreciation, physical and verbal abuse from patients, time pressures, and insufficient staff. And as for physical challenges, the U.S. Department of Labor, in a press release accompanying its 2003 nursing home ergonomics guidelines, offered as the rationale for its focus on nursing homes the “physically demanding” nature of nursing home work.

And for this we pay barely a living wage—an average of $10.61 per hour in 2006. That comes out to $22,070 per year. Try living on that! More to the point, try recruiting for what is reputedly one of the most demanding jobs in healthcare, in a profession that serves as a favorite whipping boy for a voracious media, offering salaries at that level. No wonder one of our biggest competitors is the hospital sector. It is less notorious. It requires less demanding work. And wages average nearly 10% higher than received by their nursing home counterparts.

But it can be done. I'm not going to patronize those among my colleagues who successfully recruit, day in and day out, even within the context of the difficulties enumerated above. What I am going to do is suggest that you maintain a critical focus on retention as you successfully recruit. And here I am going to rely to some considerable extent on the experiences of those who have already labored long (and successfully) in the vineyard.

One of those is Dwayne Clark, founder and CEO of ÁegisLiving and author of one of the best practical texts in the field, Help Wanted: Recruiting, Hiring and Retaining Exceptional Staff. Clark makes it clear in the very introduction to his book how devastating turnover can be to your bottom line. The National Association for Priority Leadership, he points out, estimates the cost of losing an employee to be from 150% to 300% of annual compensation. That means losing 10 nursing aides a year, at an annual salary of $22,000 per aid, can cost your facility $330,000 to $660,000 each and every year. Ouch! No wonder recruitment's primary goal needs to be retention.

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