How to Factor Burnout into Your Hospital’s Staff Succession Planning

It’s inevitable in every organization and industry: Employees find new jobs or retire, leaving critical positions vacant. Healthcare is no exception—particularly as staff continue to face worsening fatigue and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic and opt to leave the profession in record numbers. That’s why succession planning in healthcare is so important. 

Having a formal succession plan as part of the overall strategic plan means the healthcare organization has prepared for, and addressed, significant or high-level employee turnover. The goal? To maintain business continuity, especially in providing high-quality patient care, amid tumultuous periods in workforce management.

What is succession planning in healthcare?

In succession planning in healthcare, organizations identify leaders—chief executive officer (CEO), chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief medical officer, chief nursing officer, and other directors and managers—and create talent pipelines to fill positions as leaders leave or retire. It’s a proactive step in the healthcare industry that ideally prevents potential disruptions to workplace processes, workflows, protocols, and outcomes/deliverables. 

When staff leave or retire, a healthcare organization with an effective succession plan can immediately identify an internal employee with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to fill the leader vacancy in the short- or long-term, or until a permanent replacement is found.  

Why is succession planning in healthcare important?

Succession planning in the healthcare industry is of paramount importance for many reasons. When healthcare organizations have a formal succession plan in place, they’re better able to ensure high-quality patient care and business continuity during times of transition, such as turnover or retirement. 

Succession planning for key leadership roles ensures qualified candidates can step into new roles with minimal disruption while everyone stays focused on the mission and organizational goals. Without a formal succession plan in place, healthcare organizations run the risk of negative ramifications that range widely:

  • Compliance vulnerabilities, especially in safety and quality
  • Revenue loss
  • Patient dissatisfaction
  • Staff discord and compounded turnover
  • Operational and reputational damages

What are the benefits of an effective succession plan in healthcare?

Succession planning in healthcare pays dividends in multiple forms. For example:

  1. Hospitals with a formal succession plan in place can empower human resources (HR) to establish an internal hiring process for key leadership roles. This helps HR professionals find and recruit the most qualified candidates with the unique skill set necessary to meet the healthcare organization’s goals and carry out its mission. Meanwhile, individual departments can groom these up-and-coming-leaders.
  2. Another benefit of an effective succession plan is the ability to grow talent from within the healthcare organization by focusing on leadership development and talent management. The result? It will likely take less time and fewer expenses to source hospital leadership talent because qualified and willing individuals have already been identified and prepared.
  3. Succession planning minimizes the risk of losing experienced healthcare leaders, many of whom are looking for career advancement opportunities. When hospitals create a succession plan, they provide a pathway for promotion and professional growth—which ultimately boosts staff satisfaction.
  4. The hospital is prepared to deal with sudden, catastrophic losses of key leaders. This could happen for a variety of reasons both business-related (i.e., a merger or acquisition that results in a clean sweep of executives) and non-business related (e.g., illness, death, or changing life circumstances). If such a situation does occur, the organization can maintain business continuity at all times.

What’s driving the need for succession planning in healthcare?

Multiple factors are driving an increased need for succession planning, but one of the biggest is an accelerated rate of retirement in healthcare. In the past couple of years, the number of retiring baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) rose at a significantly accelerated rate when compared with prior years. This spike coincides with the arrival of COVID-19, but it’s notable that by 2030, all boomers will reach the traditional retirement age of 65. When they leave healthcare, they’ll take decades of accumulated skills, knowledge, and experience with them during what could be a “mass departure,” due to their sheer numbers.

Without a succession plan to promote leadership development, healthcare organizations run the risk of losing essential organizational knowledge. As a result, a strategic staffing plan is crucial to ensuring up-and-coming healthcare leaders have the skills necessary to bridge gaps and collaborate enterprise-wide. Although those in generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), millennials (born from 1981 to 1996), and generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) offer many talents, what they don’t necessarily bring to the table is management readiness. Having a leadership development plan in place to grow this talent pool can prepare healthcare organizations for whatever the future may hold.

As organizations confront accelerated retirements, they must also address the growing need for clinical integration and physician leadership. This, too, poses challenges given the predicted shortage of medical professionals. In 2019, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted the U.S. would see a shortage of almost 122,000 physicians by 2032. The American Association of College of Nursing predicted a shortage of registered nurses expected to intensify in the coming years. Ninety-four percent of healthcare organizations say filling clinical staff vacancies continues to be a challenge. Such statistics again make succession planning key.

Another driver? Turnover unrelated to retirement. For example, workers’ health concerns and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the healthcare staffing crisis. Today’s healthcare organizations face voluntary turnover rates at nearly 25% and rising. The American Organization for Nursing Leadership recently completed a three-part longitudinal study of nursing leaders that documents their continually worsening job satisfaction, burnout, and intent to leave the profession. A 2021 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly 30% of healthcare workers are considering leaving their profession altogether. 

Other statistics from the American College of Healthcare Executives are equally as significant. Although the average hospital CEO turnover rate is 16% (the lowest since 2011), many states face turnover rates that are much higher. The District of Columbia, for example, has a 40% hospital CEO turnover rate. Maryland, Wyoming, Washington, North Carolina, and New Mexico are not far behind at about 30%.

How does burnout play a role in succession planning in healthcare?

Burnout greatly impacts a healthcare organization’s ability to retain existing staff, and it’s one more reason why healthcare organizations need an effective succession plan. Nearly half of healthcare workers say they’re burned out during the COVID-19 pandemic. The direct and indirect costs of burnout on today’s healthcare organizations is significant.

The numbers are significantly higher for physicians, nearly 80% of whom said they felt burned out even prior to the start of the pandemic. Additional responsibilities, novel workflows, and the daily reality of potential exposure to the virus have increased the fatigue, stress, and exhaustion already felt by so many providers. Some have labeled provider burnout as potentially the most disruptive force hospitals and health systems will face in the next three years. With burnout comes the potential for turnover and the loss of individuals who could have moved into key clinical leadership roles.

In addition, 51% of healthcare executives say burnout could cause them to leave their current position. Seventy-five percent of healthcare executives say they know colleagues who have left the industry entirely due to burnout. The need for effective succession planning in healthcare is clear. 

What are tips for factoring burnout into a healthcare organization’s succession plan?

The most important tip is to not overlook the issue. In a high-burnout industry such as healthcare, it’s important to be extra cautious when estimating needs to avoid unexpected vacancies. It’s also important to monitor workforce data such as separation and accession trends to identify areas of high turnover (possibly due to burnout) and prioritize succession planning activities accordingly. Also, remember that the longer it takes to fill a role, the longer employees have to shoulder extra responsibilities. This increased workload can negatively affect morale and even lead to additional burnout. 

How recruitment marketing can help

In today’s competitive labor market, adopting innovative staffing techniques like recruitment marketing pushes your healthcare organization to the front of the line in attracting top talent to care for your patients and residents. This strategy can also improve time-to-fill and reduce turnover, bringing clear financial and performance benefits to your hospital or healthcare organization.

Recruitment marketing helps build a competent workforce over time, speeding time to hire while ensuring there is a pipeline of quality talent. With employer branding tools and sourcing/CRM technology to help with database management and candidate engagement, there are many reasons to put recruitment marketing tactics into action.

Succession planning in healthcare FAQs

Q: When should healthcare organizations begin succession planning?

A: The moment healthcare leaders are appointed. Document the following: What are the healthcare organization’s long-term goals, and what skills must future candidates possess? Is there any internal talent to fill the pipeline? If so, how can the healthcare organization grow that talent? If not, what is the plan to obtain that talent?

Q: What are critical steps in a succession plan?

A: There are several important steps: 

  1. Identify critical and vulnerable healthcare leadership positions
  2. Develop eligibility requirements
  3. Identify a talent pipeline
  4. Nominate successors
  5. Create an action plan to prepare these successors
  6. Evaluate the succession plan annually

Q: What are the biggest mistakes healthcare organizations make when creating a succession plan?

A: Common mistakes include:

  • Not beginning the succession plan soon enough
  • Defining succession planning as an HR responsibility, rather than a responsibility shared by the executive leaders and board of directors
  • Choosing the wrong successor
  • Not adopting a formal succession plan strategy
  • Not being transparent about the succession planning process

symplr stands ready to help you effectively engage staff to bolster succession planning, stem turnover, and help avoid burnout and fatigue while continuing to achieve better key clinical and non-clinical outcomes. 

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