John O'Connor
John O’Connor

It’s no secret that staffing is the major issue facing senior living operators these days.

While much has been said and written about this unfortunate reality, an article in the May issue of Harvard Business Review offers some interesting insights — and possible solutions.

In “The high cost of low-wage workers,” authors Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman argue that while external issues such as the pandemic, stimulus checks and the built-in hardships of frontline work take the blame, they are not the root causes. No, the problem really comes down to six mistakes employers are prone to make. Again and again.

And what is this dirty half dozen? They are:

  • First, employers don’t realize that low-wage workers want to stay with them.
  • Second, they underestimate the importance of location and stabiity.
  • Third, they underestimate workers’ goodwill.
  • Fourth, they leave workers to initiate career discussions.
  • Fifth, they disregard low-wage workers’ strategic importance.
  • Sixth, they fail workers on the three things that matter the most: mentorship, career pathways and guidance on learning and development.

“If low-wage workers are managed well and given the appropriate career guidance and mentorship to develop, they usually want to stay and grow with the organizations that employ them,” they note.

So how can senior living employers (and employers everywhere, for that matter) make things better? Here, they offer four remedies:

Understand the business case

While companies are quick to calculate the costs of investing in skills development for low-wage workers, they tend to ignore the hidden costs of constantly searching for, hiring, onboarding and training employees, not to mention paying overtime to existing staffers to get essential work done.

Facilitate better top-down communication

Their research found that three practices lie at the heart of highly effective efforts to advance low-wage workers: offering and publicizing clear career pathways, detailing specific learning and development opportunities for individual workers, and providing mentorship.

Get to know the barriers workers face

Many employers are painfully unaware of the hassles and roadblocks their frontline workers routinely face, whether it’s riding multiple buses to work, childcare headaches or simply the additional logistical burdens that working nights, weekends and holidays can present.

Collaborate with other companies

It’s not possible to promote all your workers up through the organization. But companies can improve retention by offering career pathways outside the enterprise.

I’d say the first three are particularly relevant to senior living.

Organizations must understand their workers better and appreciate what an important resource they are. Those that do are likely to have happier workers who are far less prone to leave. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.