COVID-19 is exhausting.

That was the consensus of speakers focusing on issues related to the senior living workforce during the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care 2020 Fall Conference, which is being held virtually this week and next.

Life Care Services President and CEO Joel Nelson, who sat on a panel with Brookdale Senior Living CEO and President Cindy Baier and Holiday Retirement CEO Lilly Donohue, said he watched the labor market transition through three phases over the past several months during the pandemic: fear and safety, education and retention, and reopening and fatigue.

The panel, entitled “People: A critical component of a successful community,” tackled topics ranging from COVID-19’s effect on the labor market to what operators are doing to attract and retain new talent.

Nelson said that initially the entire industry had to pivot and quickly adapt to new guidelines, regulations and protocols, which required a new level of training, development, communication and reassurance to employees. Phase two was adjusting to a new normal while fighting for personal protective equipment so employees and communities could be safe and less fearful. Today, there is a sense of hope and pride in what employees accomplished, potentially going from a community with a severe coronavirus outbreak to no cases.

“It’s been a process of learning,” Nelson said. “As a result, we’ve all grown.”

Nelson shared that turnover rates at Life Care Services are actually lower than in 2019 — a testament to a community’s commitment and purpose. He said the industry should seize on the positive stories coming out of the pandemic to position senior living as the employer of choice.

“Labor markets were a problem before COVID. They will continue to be a challenge after COVID,” Nelson said. “But there is opportunity created as a result of COVID we can leverage.”

Donohue said another opportunity created by COVID-19 was acknowledgement of the industry and the frontline “heroes.”

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s absolutely the importance of people,” Donohue said, adding that senior living did not shut down. Workers who focused on location, distance and transportation to and from a job saw the stability of the industry and the rewarding work. “We’re starting to hear a continual move to less human interaction because it’s easier to manage. In our industry, it’s all about the people, and those interactions are what matter and what sets us apart.”

Baier said Brookdale has to be very “nimble” in attracting new employees, pulling in workers laid off from the hospitality industry. She said a lot of people who came into the industry during the pandemic have fallen in love with it and want to stay.

She and Nelson said careers in senior living touch a number of diverse areas, including real estate, wellness, hospitality, entertainment and healthcare. Baier said if someone can’t find their passion in senior living, they won’t find it anywhere.

Recruitment

But challenges remain. There is a growing demographic of older adults who will begin aging into the senior living industry within the next six to nine years. And the industry needs to grow its workforce to be ready.

Nelson sees a solution in tapping the younger generation sooner.

Life Care Services launched internship programs, partnered with universities on senior living degree programs, provided professional development to current staff and worked with local school districts to expose students as young as the junior high level to the industry. The goal, he said, is to expand educational opportunities and create career paths in senior living.

“We spent a lot of time at all levels of the organization trying to give them exposure to the communities and getting them out to a community to see what we’re doing,” Nelson said. He said every operator has stories about someone who started out as a dishwasher in high school and now runs a community. “Those are the kinds of stories we should be telling, but we can’t create the stories if we don’t give the exposure.”

Culture

Donohue said two things the industry did well was creating a culture that encouraged employees to show up for work and keeping residents happy.

“That’s an incredible testimony to really believing in the value, mission and purpose” of an organization, he said. 

Creating that culture was done by prioritizing supplies of and access to personal protective equipment, training staff on new protocols and making sure employees understood the “why” behind those new protocols.

Brookdale’s culture, Baier said, is built on servant leadership with its cornerstones of passion, courage, partnership and trust.

“We have really leveraged the partnership aspect of this and the trust aspect. We’re going to do the right thing for our associates and our residents, and we’re going to do it together,” she said. “When you operate 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no one person can do it all.”

All three panelists said they have found that investing in their workforce on a professional development level has paid dividends. They all implemented programs to cross train employees to become “universal workers,” offering additional responsibilities and extra compensation to maintain continuity within communities and allow employees to “stretch up.”

Employee well-being

“COVID fatigue is extraordinarily real,” said Lori Alford, co-founder and chief operating officer of Avanti Senior Living, based in The Woodlands, TX. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in healthcare, where workers have to manage their fear and still come to work. “Our team, since the end of February, has been pushing really hard to navigate these unchartered territories with absolutely no break.”

Alford was featured in an “Operator Spotlight” on “Employee mental well-being and taking care of staff during a pandemic.” She said the most difficult part of the pandemic was not being able to provide answers. 

“There’s no playbook for this journey that we’re on,” she said. “We’re all writing it as we go.”

After a lot of reflection, she said, what her team needed most was mental wellness. She hired a coach and launched a six-week pilot program with her home office team, executive directors and sales force that involved videos, group coaching calls and journaling.

“I was just hoping maybe to get a 20% increase in their performance,” Alford said. What she got was “transformation.”

“Week over week, I got to see the team start to stand a little taller, start to smile a little bigger and start to believe not only in themselves, but in human beings, that this is a journey that we can conquer,” Alford said, adding that she rates the experience as one of her top three career highlights.

As a result, she is rolling the program down to every department head.

“Everybody is mentally fatigued right now,” Alford said. “This is our new norm, and we’re going to keep marching forehead and we’ll continue to do great things for our industry.”