By: Deke Cateau, CEO
A.G. Rhodes

Employees from industries spanning all types and sizes are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers—a nationwide phenomenon popularly coined as “the Great Resignation.”

The health care industry has been hit particularly hard amid workforce stress and burnout exacerbated by COVID-19. According to a 2021 poll conducted by Morning Consult, nearly one in five health care workers have quit their jobs since the pandemic and of those who have stayed, one in five are considering leaving.

At A.G. Rhodes, our care partners are the foundation of our organization, and the past two years have been especially challenging, causing many to re-evaluate their futures in long-term care. But workforce challenges have troubled our field since long before the pandemic. If asked before COVID-19 about the most pressing concern in our nation’s nursing homes, I would have said that we don’t have enough employees to fill the growing number of jobs required to care for our rapidly aging population. COVID-19 has worsened the situation.

Working in a nursing home is incredibly demanding—especially in recent years—but the reward of making a profound impact in the lives of our elders and their families is what drives many of us to continue. Now faced with growing challenges amid “the Great Resignation,” we must do more to improve the employee experience so that our care partners know—and feel—that they are immeasurably valued.

For several years we have been implementing solutions to retain our essential care partners and attract new ones to A.G. Rhodes, and we are building on these solutions to improve the workplace environment and foster a culture of belonging, which are fundamental to job satisfaction.

Prioritize Workforce Wellness

When caring for the most vulnerable population, attention to detail matters. Whether it’s providing direct care, administering medication, offering companionship, ensuring areas and surfaces are sanitized, or any of the other countless critical responsibilities, each care partner must be at their best.

Recognizing the importance of care partners taking care of themselves to best care for others, we have allocated additional resources to our employee wellness program, Live Well Wellness & Rewards Program. By approaching employee wellness holistically— with support and tools to address one’s physical, mental, spiritual, and even financial health—we aim to foster a positive working environment and a culture of wellness that supports healthy lifestyle choices, reduces stress, and enhances our care partners’ sense of value and accomplishment.

Offer Career Progression and Leadership Development Opportunities

The unfortunate reality of working in a nursing home is that there is often a perceived divide among employees; a hierarchy that creates a class system in the workplace. Not unrelated is the racial divide; our direct care workforce is racially and ethnically diverse, but our senior leadership is not.

When racial unrest across the country in the summer of 2020 prompted organizations and businesses everywhere to examine operations and make commitments to become more diverse, inclusive, equitable and fair, A.G. Rhodes created an Equity & Inclusion Committee and launched a Leadership Development Program to propel more care partners on a pathway to leadership. The program promotes equity and inclusion at A.G. Rhodes by providing mentorships and advancement opportunities for care partners, specifically front-line staff. Our goal is to prepare participants to eventually assume business management or clinical management roles in health care.

We’ve implemented several other important measures to recruit and retain staff to fill the growing number of positions in long-term care. For example, we are cultivating a future pipeline of long-term care staff and leaders through partnerships with several surrounding colleges, technical schools and high schools; we have streamlined our hiring and onboarding processes to allow staff to begin working more quickly after they interview; we’re improving our mentorship efforts to ensure staff feel supported at every stage of their career; we’re offering more flexible scheduling and additional family support resources such as scholarships available to graduating high school seniors who are the children and grandchildren of our employees.

These are just a few examples, and equally as important, we’re constantly engaging with our team to better understand what they need and expect so that we can deliver tangible, meaningful career development opportunities that are valuable to them.

Provide Competitive Benefits

Our employees are our greatest asset, and we strive to maintain competitive salary and benefit packages and reward outstanding job performance. In recent years we’ve expanded the offerings in our comprehensive benefits packages to go beyond health insurance, life insurance, retirement plan and other more traditional offerings. For example, we added Juneteenth as a paid holiday, we increased scholarship opportunities and financial aid assistance, we offer free fruits and vegetables each month, and we have even started offering pet insurance. Recognizing the extreme strain of COVID-19 on mental health—which many people have cited as the biggest reason they’ve left or considered leaving their jobs in health care—we have also increased our mental health benefits.

We know that benefits are just one part of the equation; we must also provide fair financial compensation if we expect care partners to join or stay at A.G. Rhodes, or any nursing home. A.G. Rhodes—like other nursing home providers—faces many complex challenges when it comes to staff compensation. For example, most of the residents we serve are on Medicaid—which is our largest payor source—but Medicaid reimbursement for the services we provide does not cover true costs of care. As a result, we work to creatively fill in the gaps to ensure we can continue providing round-the-clock exceptional care for our residents, while also fairly compensating our team. As one of only a few nonprofit nursing home providers, A.G. Rhodes is grateful for community support in helping us fill in those gaps but rising costs and increasing regulatory requirements have resulted in much higher expenses that impede us from paying staff more.

Even with rising expenses, we’ve worked hard to increase wages. During the pandemic we distributed additional bonuses and increased pay associated with COVID-19 risks, and these wage increases became permanent for many of our team members.

Advocate for Action

Unlike other industries—such as food and retail—that can limit their products and services or reduce their operating hours amid staffing challenges—or pass along higher expenses by raising prices—nursing homes can’t do that. We must operate 24/7 and given that our employees have a direct impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of the vulnerable seniors we serve, we require 24/7 availability of high-quality staff. This is becoming increasingly difficult to find in long-term care, as well as in nearly every other health care setting. We can’t address these difficulties alone.

As we do everything in our power to overcome “The Great Resignation” at A.G. Rhodes, we must also join forces with other long-term care providers to advocate for action from regulators and lawmakers to make systemic, industrywide changes that will better support, accommodate, and compensate our staff. Only then can we truly demonstrate to nursing home staff everywhere how critical and valued they are. The viability of our nation’s nursing homes depends on it, and the brave women and men working in this field deserve nothing less.

Overcoming the Great Resignation in Long-Term Care, A.G. Rhodes

Deke Cateau is the Chief Executive Officer at A.G. Rhodes, a nonprofit organization operating three nursing homes in metro Atlanta. With more than 20 years of experience in long-term care, Deke is passionate about fostering a greater understanding of and appreciation for the aging population and the aging services workforce.