Rising staffing costs. No-call, no-shows. Difficulty hiring and keeping workers.
These are just a few of the human resources-related challenges that senior living leaders have faced in the last year. But as much as they would like to put the previous 12 months behind them, those stiff headwinds have also resulted in better staffing practices.
Today, senior living operators including Atria Senior Living and Utah-based life plan community Summit Vista are deploying advanced data collection and wielding evolving tools with which to attract and retain workers.
Thanks to those efforts and experience gained over the last year and a half, staffing leaders including Atria Chief Human Resources Officer Karen Sheean believe that certain workforce challenges are abating.
“Our biggest challenge is still on the frontline,” Sheean told Senior Housing News.
But that is not the case in every hiring market. For example, in Utah — where unemployment currently sits at around 2% — hiring for certain positions has remained difficult for Summit Vista. And while Virginia-based LifeSpire of Virginia is on the right track after its staffing low point last year, Covid-19 presents an ever-present challenge to those efforts.
Then and now
Among all of the human resources leaders that spoke with SHN, there was a prevailing sense that, while still difficult, current staffing challenges are nowhere near where they were about a year ago.
“A year-and-a-half ago, it was absolutely reactive,” Sheean said adding that digging out of the agency labor quagmire has taken “real commitment and thoughtfulness,” she said.
And while increasing wages is a large part of the equation, Atria believes that wages are just the beginning.
”That’s the point of entry for us,” she added.
Lifespire of Virginia CEO Jonathan Cook echoed Sheean’s sentiment.
“November [and] December were atrocious,” Cook told SHN. “We were at our lowest point. We were having to use agency [workers], which, as an organization, we had never had to use before.”
Like other organizations, LifeSpire of Virginia mandated that its employees get vaccinated, with exemptions related to religious or medical reasons. And that caused some immediate turnover.
“We lost 53 individuals because of the exemption,” Cook told SHN.
Fast-forward to 2022, Cook said Covid-19 is now only a small factor in the organization’s labor woes. To Cook, the general state of the economy plays the largest role, followed by difficulties related to the organization’s hiring systems.
Cook said understanding the current labor market requires adopting a view that “the world we are living in has completely flipped on its head.” And that is not always an easy concept for the organization’s leaders to internalize.
“We’ve got a lot of long-tenured department managers, and getting them to understand that the world has changed was, and still is, a challenge,” he said.
Indeed, Lifespire of Virginia experienced the turnover of two HR directors due to the current landscape of the labor market.
Across the country in Taylorsville, Utah, the labor crunch is still as bad as ever, according to Summit Vista Associate Executive Director and COO Tineka Hardwrick.
That is likely to do with the fact that Utah is home to the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. at around 2%. Even so, Hardwrick sees other pressure points in the company’s hiring practices.
For example, business is picking up again for hospitality-focused venues like restaurants and hotels, which has created pain in the company’s ability to hire food service workers.
“The biggest hurdle for us right now is our culinary department,” said.
Specifically, Summit is feeling pain in its kitchen with refreshed competition for line cooks, prep cooks and sous chefs.
Like many of its peers, Summit Vista understands that offering more money and more flexibility is an essential part of competing in the labor market. But, it’s becoming clear that personal satisfaction is a driving force for today’s worker.
Applicants in today’s job market, like those who preceded them, are also of a completely new mindset, according to Hardwrick.
“[My generation], we looked forward to turning 18 and getting out of the house and getting on our own and buying a car and just living life,” Hardwrick told SHN. “[The] generation that’s coming into the workforce now are … not in a rush to get out, so they’re not in a rush to make money.”
Using data, adopting a sales mindset
Sheean joined Atria as chief people officer in September of last year, bringing with her an emphasis on data analytics. Now, Atria is ramping up its focus on data to take the pulse of how the operator’s current staff are feeling.
“It’s not just around recruiting,” Sheean said. “Now, we’re looking at how much do our people trust us as leaders? How proud are they to work here? Do people feel like they belong and can they bring their best, most authentic self to work?”
Louisville, Kentucky-based Atria has 430 communities throughout the U.S.
Sheean noted that approximately 80% of Atria’s roughly 16,000 employees participated in its most recent survey. Top desires from employees include more money in their paychecks and more help from the company’s support center.
Those accounts from workers also help Atria “share our story” with future prospective workers, Sheean said.
“People have a lot of pride working for Atria and we’re committed this year to telling a better story,” Sheean said.
Meanwhile, at Summit Vista, the organization’s leaders have added mental health services for workers.
“I do believe that morale is decreasing because of everything that’s around us, not just at work, but at home,” Hardwrick told SHN. “I believe that if we help them with their mental health, it will help them here at work.
Summit Vista currently partners with a mental health provider that offers three free sessions for employees, but that’s not enough for Hardwrick. In the coming weeks, the life plan community will consider new bids for different health care plans with more of a mental health focus.
“And we’re also looking at what it would look like if we brought in … a mental health person here for half a day that our employees can have the ability to go see?”
The old paradigm of hiring senior living workers is over. No longer can hiring managers wait more than a few days to get in touch with an applicant, for example.
That has pushed more senior living operators to treat recruiting much more like sales.
“We have to start recruiting our team members or employees almost like we market to our residents,” said Cook. “If somebody walks into the store to apply for a job, I’m going to talk to them, interview them and hire them on the spot if they’re a good candidate.”
Atria’s leaders also see the benefit of thinking like a salesperson when it comes to recruiting.
“I think we have changed our mindset [toward] candidates and people who apply online to the sales mentality that senior living has … speed to lead,” Sheean said. “If we can get to that candidate quicker, we have a better shot at bringing them in.”
To make potential staffers feel as important as prospective residents, Atria started welcoming candidates at the door when they arrive for an interview that includes beverages and a tour. The idea being if Atria can provide applicants with a more comforting and welcoming environment, those candidates will choose Atria.