The Nontraditional Answer to Nursing Workforce Flexibility

April 4, 2023
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* This blog is part of the Flexible Nursing and Allied Health Workforce series.

Healthcare staffing shortages are a global problem and the “new normal.” But when will new challenges stop being a normal healthcare practice? Experts predict a nationwide shortage of 450,000 nurses by 2025, which makes retaining and attracting talented caregivers a business imperative.  

Workforce flexibility has quickly become a critical demand for nurses of all skill levels and age groups. Flexibility no longer means our traditional concept of work-life balance. It’s also about finding nontraditional ways to ensure proper staff ratios and engaged healthcare professionals.

The Cost of Inadequate Staffing

We all know that maintaining proper staffing levels helps to reduce mortality rates, length of patient stays, and falls and infections.  Unfortunately, nursing turnover has reached critical levels as recent Advisory Board studies noted that the the average cost of RN turnover was $40K per nurse. Healthcare leaders were further whammied with RN nursing turnover rates of more than 25% in 2021, as reported by NSI Nursing Solutions.  These factors are creating tight operating budgets for facilities and placing additional demands on core staff. Training delays and hand-off issues spark genuine concerns about burdening already taxed nurses, which could lead to patient frustration and loss of facility credibility.  

It’s a cyclical problem contributing to millennial and experienced nurses leaving the industry. A study published in Health Affairs analysis noted that 100,000 RNs were no longer part of the nationwide nursing workforce in 2021. Fewer nurses mean asking core staff to do more with less resources. It means asking them to be responsible for more patients, which could increase the chance of medical error.  

Answers to retaining and attracting talented RNs to your facility may lie in finding creative solutions within your existing structures.

The Benefits of a Fully Staffed Shift

Groups like Advisory Board are working with healthcare systems across the nation. They have found aligning with nurses’ needs is one of the best ways to keep RNs at their current organization. The Advisory Board estimates that only 20% of a given workforce will consider options like nontraditional roles or shifts – and then only 5-10% will use those options. So, while it may not seem like a huge initial impact, it can pay volumes when considering the importance to those nurses on the fence. That can mean keeping up to 20% more nurses who might leave. Keeping experienced nurses at the bedside benefits everyone around them.

Organizational benefits: Staff retention means stable operating budgets. You can better plan for advancements, reduce spending on contingent staff, and meet fluctuating patient demands. Also, a veteran nurse’s skills and expertise can mean the difference between life and death.

Staff benefits: Proper staffing ratios make it easier for nurses to balance work and life priorities. Their engagement is more likely to increase, leading to a deeper commitment to your facility.

Explore Nontraditional Roles or Shifts

So, what are nontraditional roles?  

This can mean anything from nurse educators to multi-specialty/multi-department coordinators to patient advocates. Nontraditional shifts include short shifts across units or a senior RN leading a care team virtually.  

When considering non-traditional roles, look at areas that could benefit from your staff’s experience. Don’t focus on the normal work week or schedule. That nontraditional role could only take a few hours a week, but it can make a noticeable impact and give that nurse the experience they’re looking for.  

Nurses will feel seen and empowered.

The Path to Retention and Sustainable Workforce Flexibility

It may seem like a daunting task to begin or execute these strategies. The good news is that this nationwide-wide trend is being explored by hospitals, researchers, financial publications, and staffing companies alike. Ultimately, anyone connected to the healthcare industry is focused on the common goal of exceptional patient care. Below are a few examples of nontraditional roles and benefits.

  • Alternative sites give nurses an opportunity to gain experience and new perspectives. Advisory Board’s case study with Seattle Children’s detailed a split work model in the oncology inpatient unit and outpatient clinic. Their nurses alternated care sites every six weeks. As a result of this model, they found increased job satisfaction and less burnout. Patient and family satisfaction also increased from the continuity of care.
  • Float positions or pools provide more worker and organizational flexibility. Creating roles beyond a traditional 8 or 12-hour shift gives nurses more control over their lives. They can better plan off time and feel supported in their personal growth. Nontraditional shifts also help leaders better plan operational budgets while possibly decreasing the number of part-time or PRN staff.
  • Work-study programs upskill nursing talent while meeting patient needs. Ideally, every nurse that applies to your organization will have the exact skills and experience your community needs. In reality, thousands of nurses may not meet those criteria. That’s why Health Carousel partnered with Chamberlain University on a work-study program to attract future nurse leaders and educators to client organizations. Health Carousel pays for the education of nurse alumni from the PassportUSA program to earn advanced nursing degrees while they’re working a required 36 hours per week (average) at your organization. Program offerings range from RN to BSN through to MSN, DNP, and NP. This benefits the nurse/employee and improves your staff's skills and experience.
  • Nursing leader roles help to keep veteran nurses on the job without being at the bedside. As noted above, nurses have numerous opportunities to step out of direct patient care and share their skills with more people. Patients can benefit from remote monitoring or education. Coworkers can focus less on unnecessary, but unrelated to patient care tasks. Leaders will benefit from streamlined processes and collective knowledge.
  • Role flexibility leads to better scheduling and coverage. Even if you don’t create a specific float position, establishing practices to allow staff to flex within department or specialty needs creates a better understanding of roles and responsibilities. This is especially key when covering sabbaticals or short-term leaves and filling targeted openings with contract professionals. Understanding capabilities creates a clear path to covering acute and chronic shortage areas.

No matter where we go next in the world of nursing workforce, the demand for increased flexibility will continue to be at the forefront. Understanding that answers may come in nontraditional forms is key to making staff feel invested in their facilities. Creating those opportunities will also help us keep more nurses in the industry.

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About Health Carousel

Health Carousel is committed to partnering with world-class healthcare facilities across the country, providing rewarding assignments for Registered Nurses and Allied Health Professionals, and attracting the best internal talent at all career levels.