By Ray Wong

A recent conversation with the CEO of a large healthcare system served to substantiate my growing belief that the Healthcare Industry acts, in many ways, as a leading indicator for the type of broad-based challenges facing today’s labor markets and the US economy as a whole.

A great example of this is the workforce challenges that first crept up, en masse, throughout the healthcare industry at the height of the COVID pandemic. My conversation with this executive was specific to clinical and quality-care concerns, driven by worker shortages, and how these concerns appeared to parallel conversations that he and I were both having with colleagues across various industries.

This BBA Blog Post discusses ongoing concerns threatening growth opportunities within America’s Healthcare (HC) System. Additionally, this post highlights labor market concerns across an array of industries and how they parallel labor challenges first observed in Health Systems across America.

A Shift Away from Covid Avoidance Strategies

Many drivers behind America’s “Great Resignation,” were first observed within Healthcare Systems as employees grew more willing to consider, and explore, “new opportunities.”  The trend spread quickly to otherwise “healthy” markets (pre-covid) including construction, professional and technical services, arts and entertainment, hospitality, leisure, and similarly “service” focused industries.

Fear of exposure, an early factor contributing to labor contraction in both inpatient and outpatient settings, has given way to an equally concerning operational reality: staff burnout.  The development of vaccines and therapeutics have shifted the initial blame for clinical labor shortages away from staff “avoidance strategies” and placed them more squarely on less obvious considerations such as stress, unresolved Operational issues, and the changing needs of today’s healthcare professional.  The combination of these challenges opened the door to an environment where clinical and administrative staff, at all levels, were more open to reevaluating loyalty to longtime employers.

Fatigue, increasing responsibility and grueling work schedules worked in tandem against HC Systems across the country to create one of the most challenging healthcare labor markets ever.  But, how is this different than what has since been observed in other industries across America? As we now know, the answer is that there is really not much difference. The factors are not only similar but are, in many cases, exactly the same.

Mental Health – A Growing Focus

Few things can spotlight the priorities of life better than living through an existential crisis.  So, it’s no wonder that Covid had the better part of the US population reevaluating how their mental health stacked up against their professional development aspirations.  Consider for example healthcare professionals, especially those on the front lines and in critical-care settings, who were amongst the first to exhibit the negative impacts of covid related stress on their mental health. The mental health struggles exhibited by many of these professionals helped change America’s view of the healthcare professional from that of an infallible hero to a kinder, more reasonable image of the healthcare hero as a real-life person battling the same types of fears, exhaustion, stress and mental health issues familiar to the rest of America’s workforce.  Conversations related to problems sleeping, headaches, digestive issues, and panic-related stress have all found their way into “watercooler conversations” as employees, across all industries, cautiously returned to work.  Simultaneously, design-related considerations, once relegated to the healthcare environments, slowly started to find their way into industries beyond just healthcare. These conversations, focused on infection control, building air quality, monitoring and transmissibility, gained traction as employers throughout America worked feverishly to address employees reporting mental stress associated with return to on-site work orders.

The Labor Market’s increased focus on the mental health needs of employees, and their psychological safety and wellbeing, has grown to depend on much more than employers’ ability to make employees feel physically safe at work.  In fact, rebounding employment figures, for in-office work, are on the rise even as employees continue to describe in-office work as a less desirable workplace option. The growing employment numbers can be credited to a number of factors with some of them being directly attributable to the types of mental health interventions first deployed in healthcare settings in response to the mental health needs of healthcare frontline workers. These include, but are not limited to, expanded efforts to destigmatize conversations related to employee mental health needs, increased mental health education in the workplace, better access to mental health experts, and the development and deployment of baseline emotional support standards. These interventions, first realized in clinical settings that focused on mental health priorities in support of employees’ physical wellbeing, have proven equally as successful in other industries and support the argument of looking towards the HC Industry for solutions to what could go wrong.

The Evolution of Traditional Career Paths

I recently received a Covid vaccine booster at a pharmacy where the medical professional shared that her previous clinical experience had focused entirely on Critical Care services. The conversation highlighted for me the growing role that non-traditional healthcare competitors are having in the healthcare labor market as talent looks to move away from stress-filled environments to those which are generally perceived to be safer, less stressful, and more “nurturing.”

It is worth noting that the labor threat to healthcare systems that I’m describing cannot simply be explained away as a part of a cyclical labor shortage. The shortage was unexpected, unprecedented, and compounded by a myriad of factors including evolving career paths, professional opportunities not previously understood, staff burnout, unresolved operational challenges (in healthcare settings), and a clinical labor force that is steadily “aging out” and taking with it decades of knowledge and experience.

Interestingly enough, the evolution of the traditional career path, and its effect on the contracting healthcare workforce, is paralleled almost identically by the same forces driving labor contraction in almost all other industries. Workers are finding that proven track records are valuable assets in industries they’ve not previously considered. They’re increasingly leveraging experiences and connections to bridge over professional experience shortcomings that might have previously seemed limited. Furthermore, healthcare professionals, as well as those in other industries, have successfully lobbied employees to place more value on past accomplishments over tenure thereby opening doors to new, non-traditional career paths.

Our Take

There are many reasons to argue for the Healthcare industry as an oracle for what might ail us.  The Healthcare industry is, after all, a microcosm of our country, the economy, and the associated US labor markets.  The industry changes and reacts at such high rates of speed that it magnifies, and amplifies, even minor disturbances to everyday operational needs. This might help explain why so many of the current Labor Market challenges, including those noted above, were first observed within hospitals and in clinical settings. The above-noted observations also help build a case for the value of looking toward the Healthcare industry when seeking to understand the source of so many of the broad-based economic issues that our country is faced with today.  These observations also support the argument of looking toward the Healthcare Industry, as an oracle of sorts, when looking to forecast labor and economic challenges yet to be uncovered.

Reach out to Baker Barrios Architects and our Healthcare Design leaders for additional insight into design, and business-driven considerations, affecting small and large healthcare capital improvement projects throughout our nation.

Illustrations by pch.vector via freepik