More FTEs May Not Solve Your Staffing Stress, but Better Communication Could
Nurse staffing is a perennial issue for hospital leadership. If it were merely an issue of nurse-to-patient ratios, the problem might be easier to solve. Apart from dealing with regional nursing shortages and shrinking hospital margins, evaluating appropriate staffing levels includes the skill mix during each shift, the acuity of current patients, and the tasks assigned to nurses that do not involve direct patient care.
From a frontline nurse’s perspective, one of the main reasons that FRED — Frantically Running Every Day — persists in hospital units is the lack of adequate staff. In this post and this post, I discussed FRED and some of the Nursing Executive Center’s (NEC) recommendations in their report, “Rebuild the Foundation for a Resilient Workforce.” In a 2015 survey of registered nurses (RNs), the NEC found that only 36 percent of RNs felt that their units had enough staff.
Yet the NEC report also observed that despite widespread concern about staffing levels, several indicators show that care outcomes have been improving, especially the number and severity of hospital acquired conditions. Moreover, in some cases discussed in the NEC report, the addition of full-time nursing staff dedicated to patient care did not have an impact on the perception of staff levels.
Why the disconnect, and what can nurse and healthcare leaders do to address it?
Perceptions of unsafe staffing driven by poor communication and other workplace dynamics
Nurses’ dedication to patient care is an obvious mitigating factor in the relationship between staffing levels and patient outcomes. A 2017 study of acute care nurses found that many nurses compensated for an imbalance between staffing level and workload by coming in early, staying late, and working through breaks. As discussed in earlier blogs about FRED, this is not a sustainable strategy for a healthy organization.
But workload is only part of the story. When frontline nurses say their workflow model is FRED, they aren’t simply saying they’re busy. To be frantic is to be distracted by anxiety. In my last blog about FRED, I talked about nurses being anxious over workplace violence. This post looks at how to address the emotional aspects driving nurses’ stress over staffing levels.
Multiple studies from the NEC and elsewhere have discovered that poor communication, workplace dynamics and individual emotions are key drivers of nurses’ perceptions of inadequate or unsafe staffing levels, such as:
● Concerns about moral/ethical aspects of delays in patient care
● Fear about not being conscientious
● Feeling that their contributions are not valued
● Belief that other staff members are not doing their share or being held accountable
● Frequent interruptions during work
● Repeated last-minute changes in scheduling
In order to eliminate FRED, healthcare organizations need to address not only staffing numbers but also the other stressors that lead nurses to feel inadequately supported during their shifts.
Communication solutions to healthcare staffing challenges
A clinical communication and collaboration platform can streamline nursing workloads. While increasing efficiency and productivity is important in busy healthcare environments, the NEC report makes clear that having that extra time for patient care can reduce stress and dissatisfaction about perceived failure to perform adequately.
For example, discharging a hospital patient can require several different tasks that qualify as indirect patient care: filling out forms, calling transportation and housekeeping, paging the attending physician, communicating with the pharmacy for appropriate medications, acquiring durable medical goods, or coordinating care with a sub-acute provider.
All of these tasks take nurses away from what they see as their primary task: direct, in-room patient care. With a tool that allows nurses to perform many of those tasks from any location, via any mobile device or workstation, they don’t feel pulled to choose between staying present for a possibly distressed patient and pulling together discharge resources and personnel. Nurses can use a simple interface to communicate essential needs quickly, so patients are less likely to be kept waiting.
The result: the attending nurse presides over a smooth discharge procedure while giving the patient sufficient attention. The nurse feels she’s been conscientious and ethical, and she feels supported by other staff members. Those staff members are able to respond more quickly to notifications using the device most convenient for their location. Without changing staffing numbers, nurses can feel they have what they need to work to the best of their ability.
Smart nurse staffing using healthcare communication tools
I don’t want to imply that all staffing concerns are merely a matter of nurses’ psychological wellbeing. Nursing shortages are a concern in many areas, and maintaining shift coverage can take up far too much of a nurse supervisor’s time. Nursing communication tools designed to simplify the process of nurse staffing can address many of the issues that create a perception of inadequate staffing levels:
Appropriate skill mix: Filling shifts with the right skill mix is easier using a database that can easily cross-reference by location, certification or license, and cross-training. Nurse supervisors can create pre-set groups for faster notification and build ad hoc groups for notifications in unique circumstances. Having the right mix of people during a shift, rather than just the right number, reduces the perception of unsafe or insufficient staffing.
Quick response: Addressing last-minute changes in staffing is inevitable. Accelerating the process of filling each callout or request for additional personnel helps maintain safe staffing levels. One-touch messaging and trackable responses save time and provide a record of availability. Tracking shift coverage requests also allows nurse staff coordinators to identify patterns and plan for the future. Filling gaps assures nurses that full staffing is the standard in their facility.
Save time: Keeping the hospital staffed is time consuming. One client reported that prior to using LiveProcess, their staffing coordinators could make up to 50 phone calls a day. Those calls were not always answered, and callbacks were not consistent. Nurses were sometimes frustrated to discover that by the time they called back, the shift was filled. Delays could also lead to overfilling or underfilling a shift. Streamlining shift management through LiveProcess allowed this hospital to rise from 70 percent average vacancy coverage to 100 percent. Covering all shift vacancies reduces nurses’ stress and frustration resulting from taking over another staff member’s duties.
Read more blog posts in this series on building nursing resilience and reducing nurse burnout:
- Nurses Are Already Resilient: What Hospitals Can Do to Help
- Nursing Resilience and Workplace Safety: Addressing Root Problems in Healthcare
- 5 Ways Healthcare Communication Technology Fosters Staff Connections
- Nursing Communication Tools: 5 Benefits of Smartphones
Learn how a Texas hospital ensures 100% shift coverage while saving time and resources.
See how LiveProcess can help you with nurse staffing.
Find out how LiveProcess can optimize patient discharge coordination in your facility by saving time and eliminating phone tag.
Read more blog posts about clinical communication and collaboration.
An abbreviated version of this blog originally appeared in Health Management Technology