The Challenges of Staffing During the Holidays (Episode 1)

November 30, 2017

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx Solutions. In today's podcast, we'll talk about the challenges of staffing during the holidays. Our guest is Carol Looney, principal and co-founder of Signature HR Solutions, which provides human resources solutions for small and midsize businesses. Carol, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background in long-term care.

Carol Looney: Sure, Darcy. Thank you for having me on the podcast. For the past seven years, I have been a director of human resources in long-term care for a variety of organizations in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. What I've always loved about long-term care is the passion that employees have for it, as well as the focus on resident care, and serving the greater community, and just really enabling people to live out their dream of a fulfilling career. Being in HR has been a great pleasure to add to those organizations. Currently, I'm an HR consultant with Signature HR Solutions. As you mentioned, I do provide HR consulting work to small and midsize businesses in the Massachusetts areas as well as outside of the state.

DG: Great. Let's jump right into the first question. What are the current staffing methods that may not be effective during the upcoming holiday time and why?

CL: Sure. I think it's important to take a look at what most long-term care facilities are typically using during the regular time of year, and maybe look at why those are not effective during the holiday time. The first for my experience is overtime. Generally, staff does have to work a certain amount of overtime and that's to be expected. During the holiday time, overtime can be an unwelcome burden, especially with busy schedules, child care, second jobs, and it just may not be the right option to explore during the specific periods of holidays.

DG: Overtime is such a big concern among our customers at all year round and especially at holiday time.

CL: The second would be cash incentives to pick up shifts. I know that this may be a practice in some locations. It certainly does have a financial benefit to employees, but the question becomes when will they get time to use that extra cash. It may be a short-term solution, but it may only benefit a certain number of employees and not be equitable to all.

A third may be the desire to limit vacation time or put a freeze on vacation time during the specific holiday period. This may be something that impacts a larger group of employees, but may paint with too broad of a brush, and may not allow flexibility in your schedule, or allow those employees that are able to request time off to have it, and could unfortunately be viewed as a punishment, which you don't want to have during the holiday time.

The last would be the use of an agency. In the real world, I know that this is often a solution to staffing concerns and it's a very valuable one. The thing to watch out is during the holiday time, many family members, friends, and relatives that are coming from out of town or out of state, may be dropping in to visit their loved one. Talking with an agency representative may not give them the best picture about how their loved one is doing. It may not allow for that interactive conversation to assure them about the care that's being given. Agency employees may just simply not be able to represent the face of the company that you want during the holiday time of year with so many visitors coming into our locations. Staffing for holiday coverage is absolutely key and critical. Those are some things that may not specifically work during the holiday time.

DG: Now with the current shortage in staffing in the long-term care industry, a lot of facilities do have to use agency employees. We've tried to address that issue as well and sometimes you can't avoid it.

CL: Absolutely. Again, it's a great option. I think you just have to be concerned about how are they putting forth the face of your organization. Especially to people who may not be regular visitors, and may not know what to expect coming into one of your locations. Really, their goal is to find out how is mom or dad, or their loved one doing. That personal interaction may not be best represented by an agency staff person.

DG: True. In your experience, Carol, what are some creative ways that staffing concerns can be addressed to make it a win-win for employees and managers during the holiday season?

CL: That's a great question. I think first and foremost, always ask for volunteers. Find those people, seek out those people who really, for whatever reason, choose to work during the holiday time. Most people would want to spend time with friends and family, but some for whatever reason choose to really give back to their employer and work during that holiday time, so definitely ask for volunteers and seek those out.

I think secondly, you want to recognize those employees who work on the holiday. There are a number of variety of creative ways that I've seen done in the past, which are really effective. One that I personally like is a personal letter signed by the administrator, director of nursing, department heads, whoever would be a significant person to that employee. If you send that to the employee's home, it is really a powerful thank you because it just goes above and beyond. It's a personal recognition. They can share it with their family, and the family gets a sense of really appreciating that although they made a sacrifice, that it was really for a greater good and it was definitely acknowledged.

DG: I love that idea. In today's technological world, you rarely get a letter. I think that's a great idea.

CL: Absolutely. Just sending it home is really so impactful because a lot of family members love to hear what their loved one does during the day and that their work is really appreciated. It does have a really powerful touch. Certainly, the letter can be typewritten, but the signature should always be very personal and even just with a small handwritten note inside of it. It does go a long way.

The second thing that I would suggest is always making sure that your staff that does work on holidays is well cared for on that day. Whether it's the administrator, director of nursing, department heads coming in just walking around shaking hands thanking everyone. A hot meal should always be provided for free during the holiday shift. Public recognition goes a long way. Just a warm smile and a thank you is always appreciated.

I think another consideration is taking your shifts and perhaps for a very specific period of time, whether it's on the holiday or the day before or after, consider cutting those in half. Maybe taking an eight-hour shift and dividing it into two four-hour shifts. You may find that employees appreciate that flexibility. Someone may say, well, I want to spend time with my family. I want to do my job. I love my residents, but if I could come in for four hours, that's a lot easier of a schedule than having to take a full eight-hour day to be away from friends and family during the holiday time. If you choose that option, I would say plan it well in advance, publicize it, create some excitement around it, and work with your scheduler and your department managers so this can be communicated to all staff. When you have the flexibility of a tool like SmartLinx, it's so easy to create those schedules, get those messages out to employees, and really have that flexible option as something to look forward to that's just a little bit different, and you could try it. If it's not successful then at least you know that you gave it an option and staff will appreciate that you tried to do something different.

DG: I like the idea of taking care of your staff. In a previous job, in a previous industry, I worked on Thanksgiving. One of our co-workers brought in what looked like a turkey for all of us and we all got excited. Then as a joke, he opened it up and it was just the carcass of the turkey. It was a real let-down. I had to share that.

CL: That is a great story.

DG: Yes. Let's move onto our next question. How important is it for the staff to actually get involved in holiday scheduling planning?

CL: I think it's absolutely critical. No one likes to feel as if they're being directed without being given the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas. I think with any situation, or struggle, or challenge no matter what the employer, if you get the folks involved that are actually doing the job, it can create some great dialog. It can have a better outcome and it can really be a win-win for everyone. Employees always have, in my opinion, new and creative ideas about how to tackle just about any situation. After all, you hire and retain them because they give excellent resident care. I'm all for giving them an opportunity to continue that level of care when we talk about staffing through the holidays. I think it's just a natural extension of what they do because, again, it's trying to serve the resident, serve the population, be a great employee, and give back to the employer. A focus group is a great way to do that. Just putting some folks together in a room brainstorming, being creative, putting every idea out there on a whiteboard, and just having some good open creative dialogue.

DG: I know that scheduling obviously falls on the shoulders of the schedulers, but how can department leaders or administrators get more involved in that process?

CL: Absolutely. I'm a huge fan of getting out of the office and walking around. Stop by the nurses' station. Stop by the kitchen. Stop by the recreation department. Talk with everyone and just ask their opinion. Ask what you can do to make scheduling easier. Ask what staffing concerns they have. Are they concerned about people not showing up? Are they concerned about last-minute call-offs? That will give you a sense as the leader to really understand the pulse of what's going on with the workforce. This can be your department heads gathering that information. Then at morning meeting or daily wrap up, talking about those concerns, really getting them out there, so you're aware of where all the areas are before you're on that holiday.

I also think if you can be as creative as possible in getting everyone involved in holiday staffing. I know when I worked for one location, I had an HR team member who was also a CNA. He would have to work a certain number of shifts to keep his CNA license active. He would volunteer to cover shifts during the holiday time, specifically, because he wanted to give back. He just saw it as an opportunity to connect with his peers on a different level, break down that little bit of barrier that some may have had about him working in the front office, or working in an HR position. He was really able to just keep his skills fresh and help out in a different manner when it came to the scheduling, specifically at holiday time.

One location, I also had a scheduler who had come up through the ranks and was a CNA and still kept her license valid. She also liked to make the same offer. I think it's just about being creative and being present, and really just connecting with your employees.

DG: What about holiday pay, Carol. What are your feelings on this and how to best discuss it, who will receive pay and how much?

CL: Sure. I think there's nothing worse than having someone show up on your doorstep that has their pay stub in their hand a week or two after a holiday with a disappointed look on their face, saying, "I thought I was getting holiday pay," or "I was counting on that. I'm confused. I'm not sure why." Only to discover that, for whatever reason, based on your individual work rules, they haven't met the criteria. Maybe they didn't work enough hours in that pay period. They hadn't been there long enough. I think it's really important that, before the holiday, you review with everyone your employee handbook. By everyone, I mean your scheduler, your department heads.

I would work with your marketing team to publicize the ground rules for holiday pay just to make sure that the language is clear, and everyone understands. Then I think it's also important to follow up with managers and payroll staff to make sure that they're clear so when an employee comes to their department manager or stops in the payroll office, everyone understands what the pay holiday rules are, and it could be communicated clearly to employees in advance. You should again work with your marketing team. Maybe you want to make up a colorful flier about you have to work the day before and after the holiday, or it's time and a half, or double time. Whatever your work rules are, I think it's important that it's talked about in advance so there are no disappointed or hurt feelings after the fact, especially because it could have a financial impact on employees.

DG: What about incentives that are not directly tied into the actual schedule?

CL: Sure. I think you can talk about a number of incentives that are different and creative to get people to come to work and to make sure that the schedule is maintained as much as possible. I think one thing that you may want to try is a reward card or a punch card. I know I love my store loyalty cards. As you see those points build up or you get those 9 punches out of 10 on a rewards card, it's exciting to see that what you continue to do is really counting for something.

One location that I worked with had a rewards system where you got a punch for no call-outs in the month of December, which was tied into the holiday period. If you participated in a holiday activity for residents, maybe it was a sing-along or the holiday dinner, you got a punch for that. If you did something out of your way to make someone feel extra special during the holiday time, you received a punch for that. Then those cards could be put into a drawing for a larger prize like a day off with pay, a cash incentive, or a number of larger items that could have an impact on employees that would help with the scheduling as well.

DG: That's a great idea.

CL: It was a lot of fun. It was just something different and creative that doesn't have to cost a lot. Your marketing department can probably very quickly make a punch card for you. Again, just tell people what the rules are and have fun.

DG: Let's switch over to social media. As we know, it has a stronger presence than ever today. How can facilities leverage that for staffing during the holidays?

CL: Absolutely. You should be leveraging your social media, whether it's Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, your website. Anything you can do to promote your organization and to benefit and recognize employees is a great win-win. Holiday time is a great time to assist with staffing. It's a super way to recognize staff, and especially those who go above and beyond during holiday. Your marketing team is probably already well aware of how to leverage social media and get a campaign going for all job classes. I think an important tool for social media is to also let visitors and family members know that you're active on social media. You can ask them to follow or like your site to get the word out. You can ask them to share postings with friends or relatives and to build upon your social media network.

It's really important because this also helps to take away that sometimes stigma that people have that healthcare is depressing or lonely at holidays. I love to see people in Santa hats, or doing a sing-along with residents, serving a holiday meal, just decorating, getting excited about anything during the holiday time. It's really an important way to, again, visually get your name out, recognize that it's a fun place to work, it's a fun atmosphere, and their loved ones are being well taken care of.

DG: That's a really good point, Carol. My mother was actually in a long-term care facility and the holidays were the most fun times: staff, family, residents. I think that's definitely something that should be shared outside that facility as well.

CL: Absolutely. I just saw a location the other day that had a wheelchair race for residents that they decorated the wheelchairs like turkeys. It was hysterical, and everyone was just having the best time. It's not just during the holiday time as Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know a lot of locations will do parades during the years, or they'll have a contest, or some fun dress up spirit day. They'll promote it on social media, and before you know it, it's shared across the country because everyone wants to see that they're just having fun. That this is a great environment. Again, it really combats that stigma that it's depressing, lonely, no one wants to work there, who would ever do that job. It's really a fun place to work. I think social media is a great way to do that.

DG: When you mentioned decorating the wheelchair, it brought to mind I attended a wedding between two residents at the facility. They had the tin cans on the back of the wheelchair. It was one of the most touching events I'd ever been to.

CL: That's fantastic.

DG: I'm going to move to our last question. With diversity prevalent in the long-term care industry, what are some ways that we can respect all backgrounds during the holidays and also use that to our advantage, people who don't necessarily celebrate a certain holiday may be able to volunteer and pick up a shift?

CL: Absolutely, Darcy. I think that's a great point. It's so easy for all of us I think to get into the traditional holiday season: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. The truth is that healthcare has a fabulous diversity of caregivers. I think that's one of the things that makes our business great. The best way is to really openly approach the subject. Again, I'm a fan of a focus group to really make sure that we understand that it’s not just around the traditional holiday season, but that there are holidays throughout the year that all of our employees would like to celebrate in their own unique way.

One location that I'm aware of had a focus group that was made up of the marketing team, the administrator, director of nursing, HR manager, as well as group of volunteer employees from a wide variety of backgrounds, nationalities, even levels of experience within the industry. The purpose was to just talk about how can we make sure that everyone has an opportunity to celebrate whatever is unique to them. The marketing team was able to pull a fabulous calendar of national holidays from around the world, as well as some fun things like national pancake day, or national cupcake day, and really lay out a plan for the year. This group discovered that in Haiti, for example, Haitian Flag Day, which is May 18th, is a huge important holiday in the Haitian culture. In Ghana, a large national holiday for them is Independence Day, which is March 6th.

You can see that these are spread out throughout the year and it gives employees a great chance to share and to learn about cultures, and to recognize that a day off is important to one employee, and we should all try to help to facilitate sharing in that work schedule when your holiday comes on the calendar and becomes important to you. It was a great opportunity to show that it's not just during a certain three or four-week period during the year, but can be spread out throughout the year. This group also called themselves, instead of the “holiday” focus group, it was the “all-our-day” focus group, which really highlighted that everybody has a day that's important to them and it's meaningful. That was just a great way that they could recognize that, come together, and share the love throughout the calendar year.

DG: Carol, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. I think you gave us some great ideas that our listeners can implement during the holidays. Thanks to our listeners as well. If you'd like to learn more about SmartLinx Solutions and our fully integrated workforce management solution suite, visit us online at SmartLinxSolutions.com. Thanks again. Bye-bye, everyone.

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