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Focus Returns to Nurse Retention in 2010

Rebecca Hendren, for HealthLeaders Media, December 29, 2009

What New Year resolutions are nurse executives making this year? Savvy ones are vowing to pay attention to nurse retention once again.

The recession saw an easing of RN shortages and turnover rates around the country, allowing many facilities to put nurse retention initiatives on the back burner. Budgets for recognition and reward initiatives were slashed as belts were tightened everywhere.

But with many economists predicting the green shoots of recovery will flourish into leaves in 2010, the effects will be felt in nurse employment. The recession and high unemployment caused a drop in RN vacancy rates nationwide. As spouses lost their jobs or feared layoffs (70% of RNs are married), nurses picked up extra shifts or went from part-time to full-time. Some returned to the workforce and many who had been considering retiring delayed their plans.

Organizations saw their turnover plummet and their vacancy rates look healthier than they had in years, so they eased up on recruitment and retention efforts. But 2010 looks set to bring back the twin issues that have plagued nursing for the last few years: RN shortages and turnover.

Peter Buerhaus, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies in the Institute for Medicine and Public Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, predicts that as the economy recovers, nurses who returned to the workforce or who took on more hours to make ends meet will leave the workforce again. Those who delayed retirement will start considering their exit strategies, although they may still have to work a little longer to rebuild retirement incomes that were devastated by stock market declines.

Of course, many economists are predicting unemployment will remain high in 2010, which could delay the return of the shortage, but that doesn't help organizations that want to begin expansion work in 2010, who will need additional nurses to staff the new construction.

So it's worth taking a look at your workplace development strategies and examining what might be in store in the next year. Your RN demographics will show you what percentage of your staff is likely eyeing retirement and you can also examine turnover and vacancy statistics to consider historical trends.

It's also a good idea to conduct an RN satisfaction survey if you haven't done one in a while. If your organization has suffered through layoffs, you may think the last thing you want to do is ask nurses how unhappy they are. But surveying them now could elicit interesting findings. If you find out what your nurses' priorities are, you may be surprised that many, if not all, do not involve money.

There are many ways to improve the nurse working environment without significant financial expenditure, and savvy organizations are looking at:

  • Restructuring care delivery systems to match the needs of key patient populations
  • Redesigning nursing roles, including cross-training staff for increased flexibility
  • Paying attention to the needs of older employees and offering options such as shorter shifts
  • Focusing on succession planning and starting career development pathways so that nurses possess the skills needed to fill key positions as they become available
  • Offering recently retired employees options to return to work in some capacity, such as specialized roles mentoring or training new nurses or tackling committee work

It's also worth noting that the long-term nursing shortage is not going anywhere. Buerhaus says the shortfall in the number of nurses needed is expected to grow to 260,000 by the year 2025. To increase the nurses in your pipeline, there are long-term strategies to focus on now that can increase the supply of staff for your organization:

  • Partner with schools of nursing to provide adjunct faculty and increase opportunities for clinical placements where nursing students can gain experience
  • See whether local colleges and universities will agree to tuition reduction for staff interested in continuing education
  • Partner with public schools to offer job shadows, career exploration programs, and summer internship programs

Putting nurse retention on your list of resolutions now will ensure your plans are in place for whatever 2010 brings.


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Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits www.StrategiesForNurseManagers.com and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at rhendren@hcpro.com.

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