The coronavirus pandemic has challenged senior living providers like perhaps never before — but it’s also given them a chance to reinvent the way they’re recruiting and retaining employees.
Put another way, the pandemic and all of its pressures have acted almost as an “unscheduled audit,” according to Lilly Donohue, CEO of Winter Park, Florida-based Holiday Retirement.
“We’re welcoming this idea of reinventing ourselves,” Donohue said during a panel discussion at this year’s National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) Fall Conference, which is being held virtually this week. “It’s really aligned us around putting the customer and the employees at the center — it’s never been more important — and we want to evaluate anything that gets in the way of that.”
Over the past seven months, some of the nation’s largest senior living operators, including Life Care Services (LCS), Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) and Holiday, have grappled with labor challenges such as employee fatigue and recruiting top talent in their markets. And, this is taking place at a time when fear and safety concerns are running high and staffing needs have grown exponentially.
But these providers have also identified some strategies for mitigating those challenges, including some creative ideas. For example, Brookdale garnered inspiration from a former military leader, and is training its team on how to be “corporate athletes.” And while the current period is no doubt a challenging time, it’s also an opportunity for providers that can pivot to meet the new normal of living and working during a pandemic.
“I think workforce development, hiring, recruiting, retention, that’s what’s going to win the game going forward,” LCS President and CEO Joel Nelson said during the panel discussion Wednesday. “Not against each other, but together in positioning senior living as the employer of choice.”
From frontline workers to corporate leaders, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a broad effect on the senior living workforce.
For one, the medical needs of the pandemic have put a high premium on nursing staff, according to Cindy Baier, president and CEO Brentwood, Tennessee-based Brookdale.
“In a pandemic that is really a health care crisis, nurses are in short [supply],” Baier said during Wednesday’s panel discussion.
In general, the company has seen more staffing needs as a result of the pandemic.
“Going from a congregate model to individual pursuits and in-room dining, that takes a lot more staffing than we had ever seen before,” Baier said.
Life Care Services, the senior living management arm of Des Moines, Iowa-based LCS, has also encountered difficulties recruiting nurses in some markets throughout the U.S. — and those pressures don’t appear to be letting up anytime soon.
“Recruiting direct-care frontline staff and professional nursing [staff] is tough, and it will continue to be tough,” Nelson said.
Another pillar of senior living operations under pressure is sales. The pandemic has prompted some providers to beef up their sales staff to keep new leads and move-ins flowing. At Brookdale, salespeople have had to pivot from conducting in-person tours and face-to-face meetings to interacting with many more prospects remotely over video.
“That put a lot of pressure on our relationship-building on the sales team,” Baier said. “We’ve seen some challenges there, and it’s no question that the difficulty in hiring depends a lot on what’s happening in the local market.”
Yet another challenge in the senior living workforce right now is physical and mental fatigue — both for frontline caregivers and for corporate leaders. Baier is fond of comparing the current period to “running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” About half of the company’s workers adopted new healthy habits amid the pandemic, while the other half abandoned them, she added.
“Our clinical leaders and several of our other operations leaders really were working 15, 16, 17 hours a day, seven days a week, and not taking any time to recharge, to eat properly, to sleep enough, to exercise,” Baier said.
Similarly, Nelson said there is a new level of stress among workers in the industry.
“People have left and the good ones have been tapped,” Nelson said. “Labor markets were a problem before Covid, and it’s going to continue to be a challenge post-Covid.”
Meeting staffing challenges
The pressures of the pandemic don’t render providers helpless, however. To get ahead of current challenges, the senior living industry must look inward and improve — and perhaps a good place to start would be paying workers more.
“We’ve got to address some of those compensation levels in some of those positions if we’re really going to be competitive and be the employer of choice,” Nelson said.
That doesn’t mean providers can simply boost the level of pay across the board. Margins are tight, and most residents are on fixed incomes. That’s why, for Holiday’s workers, the path to higher compensation lies in career advancement.
“It’s unrealistic to share with our employees that somehow we’re going to be able to move salaries in some significant way,” Donohue said. “But what we can do — and make those moves very significantly — is turn a housekeeper into a head housekeeper, into a [Resident Experience Coordinator], into running our communities one day.”
But, it’s imperative that senior living providers work to create these paths for employees, Nelson said. Many of LCS’ executive directors came up through the company’s professional development program, and the company has a paid internship program to attract younger workers, such as recent college graduates.
LCS was also in the midst of spearheading a program called “Vision 2025” when the pandemic hit this year. The program, which the company launched about two years ago with the help of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has a goal of seeing 1,000 paid internships and 25 university and college programs feeding the senior living workforce.
“They need to be paid to be able to attract the best talent to our industry versus going to the hospitality industry, or wherever it might be,” Nelson said.
Additionally, Holiday has a program called Holiday University, where employees can take educational courses to better their skill sets.
“The last time I looked at the data, about 65% of our employees were actually taking courses that are not specific to the skill courses that they’re required to take to work at Holiday, which just shows you the kind of desire and hunger to improve from a personal development perspective,” Donohue said. “And I think that’s going to be great for our industry.”
Providers must also work to maintain the flow of new employees, especially as current ones leave the industry. Brookdale, like many other providers, has made headway hiring hospitality workers who were laid off as a result of the pandemic.
“We have certainly been very nimble in terms of attracting new workers to our industry, particularly pulling from the hospitality workforce,” Baier said.
Holiday has also drawn from the hospitality industry as a source of new labor, Donohue added. And LCS saw some “early success” in attracting former hospitality workers in some markets, Nelson added.
To beat wear-and-tear in its workforce, Brookdale has turned to some new and interesting ideas, including bringing in a military official to talk about battlefield fatigue. Cindy Kent, the company’s executive vice president and president of senior living, spearheaded that idea, Baier said.
The company also implemented a program teaching employees how to be “corporate athletes.” Like being a professional athlete, being a corporate athlete means getting ample rest and recharging before you can perform.
“By demonstrating the ability to disconnect and to take time away, that gives people the permission to do what they need to do for themselves and their families,” Baier said. “What we found is that when people have come back, they have come back refreshed, grateful, with more creativity and able to make much better decisions.”
Meanwhile, Holiday has leaned on its “community team lead program” to give workers a break. Through the program, other employees can fill in for their community’s general manager when they need to step away from the role.
“When your GM or someone on staff needs to take a break, you have someone inside the community that can fill in, and they probably get a little bit of extra compensation to do that,” Donohue said.