Celebrating Women in Health Care Starts with Reimagining your Workforce

by Bailey Amber
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These are challenging times for health care, and particularly for women in health care. Consider that nearly 78% of the health care workforce is represented by women.

When I look at the pressing challenges affecting health care today from inflation, shrinking margins, staffing shortages, turnover, and supply chain disruptions, I think about how these issues may be disproportionately affecting women. It can happen in a trickle-down effect and spur a vicious cycle where understaffing may lead to poor patient experiences, discouraging future visits and further suppressing health system revenue. This scenario can fuel overwork and burnout for women whose hands touch all aspects of care delivery. This cycle – often exacerbated by the challenges of our times – can take a toll on our female workforce and their own health and well-being.

Inflation adds to the burden in an insidious way as well. Rising costs can mean that more patients may put off screenings, prevention, and early treatment. Thus, they may show up to emergency rooms and doctor’s offices sicker, possibly with more advanced stage diseases.  This situation can be more costly for the patient’s health and wallet but can also be costly to our female workforce resulting in fewer hands to care for more acute patients.

Not surprisingly, stressed, short-staffed environments can jeopardize patient outcomes.

We need to invest

These circumstances explain why a vast majority (85%) of health system leaders recently said in a Deloitte survey that staffing challenges would have a “major impact” on their 2023 strategies. More than nine in 10 surveyed said investing in their workforce was “important or “very important.”

Although these intentions are encouraging, well-meaning executives will likely be forced to balance workforce investment with the need to maintain profitability. This month, as we recognize International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let’s commit that every dollar that’s invested in the strained, largely female health care workforce pays off.

Can we do it? 

I believe we can, and there’s no better time than now. The right approach can improve workforce performance and satisfaction for women throughout an organization. I recommend new initiatives from the top that show support for women, starting with an all-important listening initiative to help ensure that women (and others) feel heard and that eventual solutions are on target with their needs.

Here’s how

Specifically, I recommend the 3Rs: retain, reengage, and reimagine. One main principle of the 3Rs is to carefully blend quick wins with longer-term transformation.

  • Retain – Focus on improving working conditions right out of the gate. This could start with identifying problems that are high on priority lists, relatively easy to solve, and address them right away. Brush up on effective leadership behaviors and communicate transparently. Examples of quick wins could be new support for childcare, flexible scheduling, job sharing, mentorship arrangements, and remote work options. Also look for ways to show appreciation through nonmonetary rewards like gratitude days, celebrations, and wellness resources. Other quick retention measures could be more direct, such as retention bonuses or launching a new mental health service to help provide additional support during difficult times. Small wins can help build momentum and demonstrate your commitment to women in your organization.
  • Reengage – Strive to help women feel empowered. Encouraging women to identify root causes of stress and dissatisfaction, and to propose ideas for a better workplace experience is important. Here is where you can clarify and formalize efforts to reflect their specific needs from career paths to professional development to growth opportunities. Another reengagement measure could be reassessing your total rewards program and adjusting the mix of benefits, pay, and other rewards. This can also be where you can transform the culture by fostering greater inclusion, addressing safety (psychological and physical), and encouraging courageous decision-making. Effective reengagement can give women a true sense of ownership in the organization. They should believe their workplace can be a satisfying and rewarding one in which to advance their career and wellbeing.
  • Reimagine – Think big! (And big doesn’t have to mean expensive.) Examine from a 30,000-foot level what work is done, how it’s done, where it’s done, and who does it. Identify the key operations that need re-engineering to help optimize the human experience and transform care delivery.

Examples of reimagination could be events or initiatives that support women to share their stories or foster mentoring.  Reimagination also could be offloading, outsourcing, or automating administrative tasks so that more time can be dedicated to delivering work that is most meaningful and impactful. Or go further and restructure roles – for example, creating interdisciplinary care teams that help everybody operate at the top of their license. Other moves could include intelligent new-hire onboarding, optimization of permanent and travel RNs, intelligent patient placement, and automated discharge planning.

Admittedly, the biggest, most “reimagined” ideas may have to be rolled out in phases as health care seeks to balance financial realities with workforce improvements.

This year, let’s take action to reimagine the health care workforce for women. With so much of health care resting on women’s shoulders, it’s time we retain, reengage and reimagine health care with women leading the change. Our future workforce and our health depends on it.

Photo: FotografiaBasica, Getty Images

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