labor market mismatch for healthcare workers contributes to a growing crisis during the pandemic 

If you weren’t already aware, healthcare systems in many countries are in a crisis. A shortage of qualified doctors and nurses, especially those in specialized fields, is resulting in compromised care. The added stress of the pandemic on hospitals and other care facilities is further straining healthcare systems and workers around the world. The situation is so dire that a shortfall of 18 million healthcare workers is expected by 2030, according to the World Health Organization

The pandemic has highlighted a crisis that was already years in the making in many countries, as some societies have struggled to keep up with healthcare demands due to graying demographics, a widening skills gap and budget shortfalls to keep medical facilities well staffed. The surge of COVID-19 patients simply exacerbated the talent scarcity problem around the world. Even though the WHO’s shortfall estimate mostly applies to low- and moderate-income countries, the problem is also severe in wealthy economies such as the UK and US. 

For instance, according to one estimate, the UK faced a healthcare workforce shortage of 100,000 last spring, with 40% of that figure attributed to just nurses. In Spain, the shortage is estimated to be between 88,000 and 125,000. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, could see a gap of 270,000 workers by 2025.

The lack of nurses, home healthcare aids, doctors and other medical specialists has caused concern among healthcare policymakers, government leaders and other stakeholders. And for good reason because the challenge is multi-faceted. Not only aren’t there enough nurses in some markets, but many existing workers are leaving or about to leave the field due to stress, poor pay and retirements

Even in the Philippines, the country has imposed a ban on healthcare workers finding employment overseas after a rise in COVID-19 cases, stressful working conditions and poor pay resulted in 40% of private hospital nurses quitting last year. The Philippines is one of the leading countries providing nurses around the world, so the closing of this talent pipeline has a tremendous impact on other nations.

And among healthcare workers who choose to remain in the workforce, competition for talent has become so fierce that labor costs are rising several times faster than inflation rates. For instance, hourly wages rose more than 7% this year for certified nursing aids in the US, according to one report. In the UK, one nursing college has urged the government to give nurses there a 12.5% pay hike.

Without question, the healthcare industry is at an inflection point. As the ebb and flow of the pandemic stress care systems around the world, arguably the most important determining factor for COVID-19 survival rates is quality of care, and that is wholly controlled by the people looking after patients. But with so many healthcare organizations scrambling to hire workers, how can they ensure access to this scarce talent pool?

salaries, work-life balance are key

With scarcity plaguing healthcare markets around the world, money without question is the most important factor for attracting talent. In fact, the 2021 Randstad Employer Brand Research found that among working-age adults in 34 markets, 60% surveyed say a competitive salary and benefits are the No. 1 factor when choosing employers. This consideration was followed by a good work-life balance (cited by 57%) and a pleasant working atmosphere (56%).

Not all healthcare workers, however, prioritized pay as the leading influence. Personal care workers in health services, such as home aids, ranked a pleasant environment slightly more important than compensation (60% vs. 58%). Health professionals (doctors, nurses and veterinarians), on the other hand, consider wages even more critical, with 66% citing it as their most important factor.

This should come as no surprise as escalating salaries have been a growing trend in recent years. The passage of the US Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration led to greater utilization of the healthcare system and drove up demand for talent. The outbreak of COVID-19 has also contributed to rising demand for workers around the world. Employers in many markets are adjusting their salary guidance to ensure they can compete for scarce skills, but there is a high degree of mismatch in this segment of the labor market.

Beyond rising salaries, the desire for a better work-life balance and a pleasant work environment has always been important to healthcare providers. Due to the pandemic, the importance of these factors have become even more top of mind. In part, a high caseload of COVID-19 patients since last year has driven many workers to leave the field, further compounding the scarcity issue. Also, with many care facilities still lacking proper equipment and overflowing with patients, hospitals are struggling to provide a protective and pleasant environment for their staff.

what employers can control

While employers may not have control over some of the factors driving healthcare workers out of the field, contributing to burnout or escalating wages, they can create a superior talent experience and employer brand to better attract and retain talent. Grace, a nurse practitioner based in New Jersey in the US who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, said she has never seen such an overheated healthcare labor market (she requested her last name be withheld). 

While offering competitive salaries are just one key consideration for employers, Grace added that hospitals and other providers can make their employer brand more attractive without incurring too many additional costs. Measures such as regularly surveying staff for their input, identifying stress points and creating effective policy and actions in response helps to enhance retention. Furthermore, offering skilling and training, providing perks such as on-site massages and creating an inclusive culture can be impactful.

'Start with salaries that are competitive in your surrounding area', she recommended. 'Make sure you show your employees you care by listening to them.'

As in any job sector, capturing feedback and developing appropriate responses will be critical to retention, the talent experience and your employer brand. During the pandemic, however, tending to the needs of healthcare workers has become even more critical, as they face greater stress and risks doing their jobs. Providing support is paramount. 

To gain more insights about healthcare workers’ employment preferences, you can download the 2021 Randstad Employer Brand Research Global Healthcare Professions Report here.