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September 30, 2021

Prioritizing employee retention

Health care recruitment will likely always be necessary, and competitive.

The layoffs, early retirements, severance packages and rescinded offers of 2020 are currently adding to that competition. I’d venture to say you could write that story! We’re seeing it in many industries, and although things are difficult for some professions and specialties, I believe things will start to even out over the coming months.

As you hang in there when it comes to your recruitment hustle, I want to address an ever-present elephant in the room, that often-overlooked wallflower in a recruiter’s life: retention.

In this COVID era, in health care, are you still recruiting your current staff? Can you?


I’ve put together a list of key retention best practices. If these aren’t exciting enough* for you real recruitment enthusiasts, keep this in mind: Making yourself an employer of choice through culture and communication will encourage your employees to be your best recruitment sources.

*(Obviously I’m kidding. This list will leave you motivated to realize your best retention life!)

Create a loyalty program

Have your employees stuck with you through the COVID thick-and-thin? We’ve seen employers of all sizes reflect on the past year and look for ways to thank their loyal employees. Whether you offer hazard pay increases or one-time loyalty bonuses, we encourage you to assess your individual team’s strength, acknowledge, reward and share.

And, for everything you do to help ensure access to health care for your community, thank you.

Address safety

Safety measures in health care were already happening before COVID. But, like many aspects of life, the coronavirus has changed how we need to approach safety when it comes to both recruitment and retention.

Beyond ensuring employees have the safety equipment needed, add communicating this to candidates during the interview process, new hires during onboarding and current staff on a regular basis. Use the same process for safety policies and procedures. First, make sure they’re there, but communicate this back to staff. This is a recurring theme you’ll notice throughout this piece: Communication is not only key; it’s king.

We’d also like to note that for many behavioral health professionals, due to the nature of their work with their patients, safety is especially important - and that includes COVID protocols.

Implement an employee assistance program (EAP)

Financial incentives are fantastic, but they have their limits. Look closely at how often you’re scheduling staff. It’s hard for most of us to say no to extra financial incentives, and we’re seeing some sweet cash being thrown out for certain shifts and positions right now. However, this can lead to both burnout and moral injury. If you’re seeing signs of this within your staff, an EAP may be a better fit to add to your overall benefits package.

For example, if you desperately need 20 people on your floor but only have a staff of 35, that’s not enough. Sure, you can pay an extra $100 (and we’re seeing this), but employees are done. Do some math. When that person (or persons) burns out, how much is it going to cost you to replace their expertise and passion for your organization?

Spending what feels like an extra chunk of money now may actually save you money in the long run. If you’re keeping mission-driven, valuable employees long term, that’s a win for the employee, your organization and the overall health of your patients.

An EAP can bridge gaps you’re seeing as an employer, where employees may be needing help, but as an employer you’re not allowed to assist in these areas. An EAP can provide a person for your employee to talk to, allowing you to stay within the appropriate work boundaries, all while treating your employee as a holistic person.

Build trust

Stay interviews are such a beautiful thing. Your supervisors need to schedule time to regularly check in with their staff. Give staff space to share where they’re at. What are their goals? What would they like to learn in the next year? Is their role still fulfilling to them both personally and professionally? The questions have no limit. And what supervisors learn during these conversations can be so meaningful in so many ways - for both parties.

In harmony with stay interviews, implement (and then address) an employee engagement survey. I love to share an example from a health center I helped grow from a three-person operation to a multisite system employing hundreds. Our engagement survey told us staff coming in early hated our parking lot. It was dark during the winter months, and they didn’t feel comfortable parking and having to walk in the dark. So we listened and installed a light - such a simple fix. Remember: If you ask the questions - and you need to be asking them - be prepared to address the responses.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communicate on everything, then communicate it again. If you’re going to be competitive in today’s market, you need to think more about people than money. Make sure your people know and understand what you are doing for them.

Using the previous example of the parking lot light: Even though the light was there and the problem solved, we still had to communicate that we had done it. Seems silly, right? But employees thought the city had put in that light. We needed to make sure they knew we not only listened - we really heard them and took action to solve the problem they shared.

 Work to solve burnout

Yes, burnout can be solved. Talk to your employees and gather feedback. And, when you ask their opinion, listen. A key question here is, "What does staying look like for you?" Based on what they’re telling you, show them you want them to stay.

Focus on physician burnout

Our industry was experiencing burnout before the pandemic. Like many things, it’s been exacerbated. What you’ve always done - especially pre-COVID - is likely not going to work right now. Stay relevant. Embrace change.

Nurses in particular are being compensated to pick up extra shifts. If you’re seeing turnover, assume burnout is happening. It’s time to talk and find out what’s happening. It may be tough to hear what they’re saying. Here’s where the idea of embracing change comes into play. Some difficult conversations now may save you some serious financial hits in the future. There are so many intangible costs associated with turnover.

Manage to people, not policies

You’re in the business of health care. It can be a delicate balance between the "care" and "business" aspects. If you want to manage people, you must protect and nurture this privilege: Your employees are human beings first. You’ve got to be able to scale how you’re operating back down to the human aspect.

Also keep in mind your organization’s backbone is your supervisors. Ensure your leadership team values the business of staff as much as patients. This can be an avenue to empower supervisor growth so they aren’t also subject to burnout.

If you’re not replaceable, you’re not promotable

Have you ever worked with someone who was irreplaceable in their job? It can be such an asset to have a team member who brings a unique competitive advantage to their role.

But what if that person wants to grow and move up their career ladder? Might they be a good fit to first show leadership skills through teaching their expertise to fellow staff members? Stay in tune to goals and needs, or your irreplaceable staff might soon need replacing when they move on to opportunities elsewhere.

Remember there’s help out there if you need it

One of the best practices I can share is to remind you you’re not alone in your retention efforts. Much like recruitment, retention needs to be a team effort. And it’s going to be much more successful if your leadership team in engaged.


3RNET has a Recruiting for Retention guide to help you make sure you’re covering current recruitment and retention best practices. This simple, easy-to-implement resource is for employers and recruitment teams any size.



Michelle Varcho is the Director of Education Outreach for 3RNET, which helps health professionals seeking careers in rural and underserved communities. Michelle leads education-related activities for 3RNET Network Coordinators as well as rural and underserved health care employers nationwide. She has over 25 years of experience in health care-related human resources both at the local and national level. Prior to joining 3RNET, she was a Human Resources Director for a federally qualified health center in Jefferson City, Missouri, where she helped the organization grow from five employees in one location to 110 employees in four locations serving over 13 counties. Michelle created and implemented strategies and best practices to overcome the unique barriers to recruiting and retaining providers in the rural health care arena and uses the wealth of expertise she gained in this role to help inform 3RNET trainings she leads.

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