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Caring For The Caregivers
Today’s top senior living centers offer employees more than just good wages.


Nov. 2018

As more baby boomers begin to age into senior facilities, employment in the field of long-term care is experiencing substantial growth.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the job market in health care is expected to expand by nearly 20 percent per year through the year 2024. That’s great news for job seekers. But many senior care facilities are learning that the ease of finding a new job has led to a serious problem: high levels of staff turnover.

Nationwide, reported turnover rates for nurses and nursing assistants at long-term care residences are consistently over 50 percent. The Department of Labor Statistics says that, taken alone, the nurse’s aide turnover rate at long-term care facilities was 31 percent higher compared to other nursing staff. The impact is costly both for the facility and for the residents. Finding and training new employees can cost upward of 30 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Overall, it is estimated to cost the industry more than $25 billion annually.

It’s a lot of money — and that’s only half the story. The true impact is on the residents. For them, staff turnover is much more than a statistic. Any sudden change in a caregiver can have negative physical and emotional effects on residents, as established, trusted bonds and routines are broken and a new person learns their needs and personality.

To deal with the problem and retain valued members of their staff, successful senior facilities not only train new members to deal with the patients, but they help them deal with the physical and mental toll of their positions and offer other incentives for them to keep them in place.

Getting Off To A Strong Start

Finding staff that stays begins in the hiring process. Most senior centers screen applicants, looking for a strong employment history and a commitment to working with the elderly. Failing to understand what the job entails often leads to people leaving shortly after taking a position. New recruits at Cedar Community in West Bend perform job shadows, whereby the candidate follows a current team member to see what the job truly entails. “This way there are fewer surprises when they start working, especially if they have never worked in senior health care before,” says Director of Nursing Heather Suarez Del Real. “We look for someone who has a great deal of empathy, is very caring, and who is team oriented.”

“The problem is that jobs are plentiful,” says Renee Anderson, president and CEO of Saint John’s on the Lake in Milwaukee. “It’s easy to move, whether the motivator is wages, benefits, schedule, workload, shift, co-workers or supervisors. Many nursing employees hold multiple jobs, so loyalties and relationships are not always strong.”

Mary Russo Chadek, director of human resources at Milwaukee Catholic Home, says there is also a shortage of people willing to work in the field for other reasons. “Generally speaking, it can be hard, heavy and emotionally challenging work with rewards that do not always outweigh some of the requirements of the job,” she notes.

Benefits Beyond The Norm

To hold onto their best employees, senior living centers are becoming more creative. Chadek says Milwaukee Catholic Home offers recruitment bonuses and retention bonuses, “as well as outstanding and affordable insurance options and a retirement plan that offers an employer match and a discretionary contribution. We also offer generous time off with pay plans, and employees get free meals on campus every day.”

At Wauwatosa’s Lutheran Home, the staff is trained to work in different units, offered flexibility in scheduling and given use of the healing garden, outdoor courtyard, café and chapel.

Cedar Community offers use of their lakefront beach house and cabin to team members. “We also have pontoon boats that our staff can be trained to captain and rent for their families,” says Suarez Del Real. “Our fitness center and pool have employee hours, and we have a full-service pharmacy that offers discounts on medications and over-the-counter products. We have an urgent care clinic that is staffed four days a week and can be used by our team members at no charge.” Cedar Community also recently redesigned its staff break room, adding Wi-Fi and computers, and new relaxation areas where staff can sit and take some time to decompress.

Recently, St. Camillus in Wauwatosa remodeled its staff break areas to make them more attractive to workers. Now, in addition to quiet break rooms with comfortable seating, the areas have two on-site cafés where staff can socialize, plus low cost access to the on-site fitness center. “We also offer tuition reimbursement up to $2,000 per year and have awarded four college scholarships to employees or their children in 2018,” says Kevin Schwab, CEO of St. Camilllus. “In the past three years, we fully paid for nine employees to become certified nursing assistants.”

At Saint John’s, every member of the staff receives a quarterly performance evaluation tied to a bonus and opportunities for continuing education through a foundation that gives scholarships in the range of $20,000 annually to employees pursuing their education in nearly any field.

A Good Word For Good Work

Finally, keeping morale high also helps keep quality staff around.

Saint John’s uses a system of thank-you notes where residents can publically share their gratitude to specific staff members. Cedar Community has a similar system called “Bravo Branches,” in which families and residents can leave a note of thanks or appreciation and hang it on one of the Bravo Branches to recognize the team as a whole or a particular staff member.

“We also have a ‘random acts of appreciation’ group that will randomly deliver gift bags of treats to different departments while sharing a word of thanks for being such amazing team members,” says Anderson.

In short, caring for the caregivers helps senior centers retain good employees longer. Today’s best centers understand that they need to be competitive and compassionate to attract and hold onto qualified staff. And they know that if they succeed, not only will their residents benefit, but their bottom line will too.


This story ran in the Nov. 2018 issue of: