Long-Term Strategies for Staffing Challenges

July 2, 2021 Brent Dillinger

With much joy and anticipation, many companies in our industry are able to return staff and clients to the workplaces and therapy rooms they once knew prior to when the COVID-19 crisis began. Yet, along with this hope for a return to “business as usual”, we are gripping with the realities we now face as leaders: a tough labor market before, has now grown into a crisis of its own—America’s Workforce Crisis. When demand for our services is high, and our ability to serve more is compromised, what can we do?

To begin, let’s face the challenge and opportunity aligning with the following fact: demand for services will only continue to grow. It should come as no surprise to us that the anxieties, stressors, trauma, and grieving brought on by all the consequences of the pandemic have really taken a toll on our loved ones, friends, neighbors, and communities. Now, it seems more than ever, our communities are needing us to step up and serve in ways we’ve never been called upon before. In DATIS’ 2021 State of the Workforce Management Report, one of the top 5 key takeaways verifies this assertion: Demand is only growing for services and will continue to grow.

The law of supply and demand comes to mind here. Supply of credentialed mental health professionals, addiction counselors, and direct support professionals (DSPs) continues to lag the demand for accessible, quality, and local mental health and long-term support services. To further demonstrate the supply issue, HRSA’s Health Workforce Behavioral Health Workforce Projections, 2017-2030 report reflects a 3% increase in the supply of Addictions Counselors, with a projected need of 15%, resulting in a shortage of over 11,500 FTEs in this one role alone. A crisis of this magnitude requires new thinking and courageous decisions on the short-term, and strategic planning and persistence over the longer-term. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers (or even most), here’s three thoughts which might help guide us forward:

  1. Rediscover the new drivers of engagement.

It’s been said often that COVID-19 taught us a lot. Our perceptions of work and experiences with work changed on a dime in early 2020. And now, almost 15 months later, we are learning that while some of our team members want to return to the office to see their clients and peers face to face, others want to continue to serve their roles remotely. This one driver of engagement poses risks but also rewards. Additionally, many of our team members have their own careers affected by the downstream impacts of the pandemic on their spouses, children or others in their care.

While grace and understanding will continue to be needed, it is also imperative we reach out to our team members via 1:1s, rap sessions, and employee surveys to re-examine the “new norms” in their thinking about work and what now defines an engaging workplace. Our company, Trivium Life Services, took an engagement pulse survey in January and again in mid-June to learn from our teams on how we can best meet their needs while they work so hard and dedicate themselves to meeting their client’s needs.

  1. Compensation must be figured out.

This is a tough one, and there are no easy answers. Yet, we have known for some time now that our workforce, COVID-19’s newly labeled “essential workers”, serves some of our most vulnerable while earning wages not commensurate with the value they bring to society. Re-evaluating budget priorities and holding our departments accountable to efficiencies takes courage. What can we say “no” to in our budget to be able to say “yes” to our workforce? We know we can’t solve the compensation problem alone. So, additionally, how can we elevate our advocacy game to influence our legislators with the learnings of yesterday to bring greater parity in their funding priorities and direct more funds to supporting the healthcare workforce?

  1. Advocate and educate like people’s lives depend on it. (Because they do!)

The Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill, The American Jobs Plan, includes unprecedented funding for Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) and emphasizes support for our industry as the President’s policy document claims “the last year has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure.” While full passage and signing into law a bill of this sweeping nature likely will not happen in today’s divisive political arena, it is a giant step and recognition of what we in the industry know all too well: that our workforce infrastructure is fragile and is in need of a boost. Let’s not give up hope, though, that our voices can be heard and do matter. After several years of advocacy by our state association and many other stakeholders, my home state of Iowa just saw its legislative bodies pass a budget that includes significant mental health funding investments in recognition of our essential workers—we await Governor Reynold’s signing.

The way forward looks somewhat ambiguous filled with concerns over our workforce crisis, no doubt. Yet, the resiliency and hope that fuels our desire and fortitude to serve will carry us forward as it always has. I am optimistic that as the demand for our vital and life-saving services continues to grow, we will assemble new partners and champions to help us ensure the supply of dedicated professionals to our industry continues to grow and develop as well.

About the Author

Brent Dillinger

Brent Dillinger is the CEO of Trivium Life Services (formerly Crossroads of Western Iowa). Since 2008, he has overseen rapid growth as the organization's headcount, budget, and people served have all more than tripled. Dillinger has a strong background in retail management and is currently an active board member and Past-Board President of the Iowa Association of Community Providers (IACP) Board of Directors.

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