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Staffing shortages create challenges for senior living facilities

November 10, 2023

The senior living industry is facing ongoing challenges as staffing shortages reach unprecedented levels.

In the United States, 99% of nursing homes and 96% of assisted living facilities are grappling with severe staffing shortages.1 Since March 2020, the nursing home sector has witnessed a reduction of approximately 235,000 employed workers,2 and 52% of assisted living providers report that their workforce situation has worsened as of late.3

These shortages are driven by significant obstacles in hiring qualified candidates and exacerbated by an increasingly aging workforce. What’s more, these shortages are expected to continue as the population aged 85 and older is expected to grow to 19 million by 2060, an increase of 12.5 million from 2016.4

Causes contributing to staffing shortages

Staffing shortages in the senior living space stem from a multifaceted set of causes. A lack of qualified candidates is a persistent issue.

Additionally, poor pay and benefits have made positions like certified nursing assistants some of the lowest paid within the healthcare sector, dissuading potential recruits.

The limited opportunities for career advancement in these roles also contribute to the problem, as does the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the work, which can lead to burnout.

Many skilled professionals have also been drawn away by more attractive opportunities at other healthcare institutions or entirely different industries.

Problems that staffing shortages create

Staffing shortages in senior living facilities give rise to a host of problems and challenges, affecting both the staff and the residents.

For the residents, reduced staffing levels result in decreased individualized attention and supervision, leading to missed opportunities for vital social interaction, engagement and emotional support.

Care continuity becomes inconsistent with frequent staff turnover or the high use of agency personnel as well, which hinders the development of strong staff-resident relationships and leads to an increased risk of accidents. Limited staff also means limited admissions, which means being able to care for fewer people in need, as well as less revenue coming into the facility.

On the staff side, negative perceptions among residents and their families, stemming from compromised care, dissatisfaction and complaints, can escalate into legal actions against senior living communities, amplifying the potential for errors and accidents and raising the specter of lawsuits.

Regulatory changes since COVID-19 related to infection control, resident safety and staff-level requirements also create challenges for staff. In addition, being short-staffed puts a lot of pressure on existing workers, which can lead to stress and burnout; nearly a third of nurses in 2022 said they were likely to quit soon because of it.5

Strategies for addressing staffing shortages

To address staffing shortages in senior living organizations and reduce the risks associated with this issue, here are 12 strategies that can help retain employees and attract new staff — and support them in the process.

  1. Recognize and appreciate employees: Acknowledge and celebrate the hard work and dedication of staff members regularly to maintain and motivate their commitment. This is key for retaining employees and motivating them to succeed. It’s also important to cultivate a supportive and empathetic work environment by implementing mentorship and support programs, providing regular breaks and emphasizing work-life balance initiatives.
  2. Offer competitive compensation: Increase hourly wages, offer sign-on bonuses and provide higher pay rates for shifts that are harder to fill, recognizing that competitive salaries can be a key motivator.
  3. Invest in your employees: Invest in employees’ well-being with wellness programs, tuition assistance, education support and childcare assistance to improve their overall quality of life. Providing access to fitness facilities and partnering with childcare facilities eases stress for employees. It promotes well-being, work-life balance, and enhances job satisfaction.
  4. Provide creative scheduling: Develop flexible scheduling options that cater to employees’ individual needs, allowing them to work hours that align with their preferences and help promote work-life balance.
  5. Offer training and support: Provide thorough training and hands-on support, ensuring that staff members are well-equipped to handle their responsibilities and feel confident in their roles. The training and support should be hands-on, involve managers, and include real-life examples to enhance competence, leadership, and a culture of continuous improvement. This benefits both employees and the organization.
  6. Provide strong employees benefits: Offer additional benefits like on-site meals during shifts to enhance the work experience and support staff members’ basic needs., as well as other, creative benefits like installing a ping pong table, massage chairs, etc., to enhance their experience.
  7. Engage with the community and collaborate with partners: Engage with the local community to build positive relationships and improve the organization’s reputation. Participate in career fairs and outreach initiatives to attract potential staff.
  8. Collaborate with healthcare partners: Establish partnerships with local hospitals, nursing schools and healthcare organizations to create a pipeline for qualified staff and consider offering training programs to ensure a steady supply of skilled employees.
  9. Improve continuously: Continuously seek out and share effective strategies for attracting and retaining employees, learning from the experiences of other senior living communities.
  10. Focus on safety and care: Prioritize resident safety by assessing staffing ratios and making adjustments to meet individual resident needs, and always maintain a commitment to providing the highest quality of care.
  11. Encourage empathetic leadership: Employees need to feel connected to their leaders. They value leaders who are visible and engaged, not confined to their offices. Face time with employees, calling them by their names, and recognizing their faces creates a sense of connection and trust.
  12. Ask for feedback: Asking employees to provide feedback establishes open lines of communication, creating an environment where employees feel valued and heard. And when employees see that their input is being taken seriously and used to make positive changes, it reinforces their sense of belonging and engagement.

By implementing these strategies, senior living organizations can work to mitigate staffing shortages, enhance the work environment and ultimately provide better care and support to their residents while fostering a culture of appreciation and commitment among their employees.

It can be more difficult to develop those relationships when organizations use an agency, but it’s still very possible to curate the best workers and cultivate a successful community. Lastly, consider sharing real-life claims with your clients so they understand what the trends are and what’s really at stake with staffing challenges.

Creative solutions are needed

In the face of the critical staffing shortages senior living organizations need to implement creative and comprehensive solutions and challenge the sentiment that people in healthcare often take their hardworking staff for granted. Adequate staffing isn’t about meeting minimum criteria; it’s about individualizing care to ensure the safety, well-being and dignity of the residents.

As the country grapples with the challenges of an aging population, senior living facility operators must recognize that investing in staff is an investment in the quality of care provided.

Resources for reducing risks specific to senior living facilities can be found on the Senior Living page of our Loss Control Services website.

Learn more about solutions that meet the needs of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations that support children, adults and older people.