Labor in Healthcare's Supply Chain: A Guide to Improving Your Circumstances
Working in healthcare is often threatening to the physical, mental, and financial health of its very workers.
The timing of this blog is a little suspicious, we realize. We promise that we're not bringing up labor because it was recently Mother's Day. And we promise that we're not talking about conflicts between employers and employees because it was recently May Day. (At least, that's not the main reason.)
The issues faced by healthcare workers are neither new nor secret. We can all remember widely circulated stories of workers making their own surgical gowns out of trash bags in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we are two years later, and most of those stories have disappeared from news outlets. That must mean that all of the struggles healthcare workers face have dried up, too, right?
The volume of coronavirus-related cases is not (usually) overwhelming, but it's not gone, either. And even if it were, the COVID-19 pandemic only revealed vulnerabilities (and outright failures) in the US healthcare industry. Those challenges persist. The healthcare worker in every sector - clinical, administrative, and yes even executive - is told that they must persist, also. But that persistence comes at a cost.
What Does Providing Healthcare Cost Workers?
The mental toll that the healthcare profession puts on its employees is not equal to that of other professions and industries. Burnout is a phrase that's been so overused that you probably rolled your eyes just reading it at the beginning of this sentence. But its effects on healthcare workers are unique.
No matter where you find yourself in the organization, by virtue of working for an environment that provides healthcare, you are more likely to know someone who has died of COVID-19 (among many other, more established health issues). You are more likely to have been exposed yourself, which means that you are more likely to have experienced a more serious and debilitating case of COVID-19, including "long COVID," which reduces your ability to do your job.
Think about that: you are working a job that directly threatens your ability to work that very job and maybe any job anywhere.
Adding in the fact that employers have been asking staff to work sick (if not outright lie about their illness), the healthcare workplace is increasingly hostile. Not so far gone are the days of factory gears mauling the people keeping the gears turning. Little wonder, then, that healthcare workers are experiencing mental strain similar to that of soldiers.
Solution: mental healthcare services are usually available to our strained peers. Problem: most healthcare workers aren't taking advantage of the resources available to them. Why? It could be that they don't have the free time to spare on mental healthcare. It could be that they can't afford therapy, medication, or time off. It could absolutely be that they don't know that these resources are available to them in the first place.
All of those are probably true, as evidenced by the fact that the number-one utilizer of time off to address mental health is the CEO. The healthcare provider CEO is (usually) not subject to the direct trauma of treating sick people, but the CEO is no less subject to the stressors of healthcare's many business challenges. That helps explain why CEO resignations have nearly doubled recently.
It's probably fair to say that no one is immune to the pressures of the healthcare industry. It's also probably fair to say that we shouldn't completely demolish the healthcare industry. Our communities need us to provide health. So we have to find a way to provide healthcare without squeezing dry and discarding the people who provide it.
How Can Workers Make Healthcare Worth Their Time?
You can organize.
People are always stronger together. The pandemic might have made that a little more difficult at times (it's at least made it more dangerous), but think of how active social movements and workers' movements have been and the relatively low caseloads that have resulted from gatherings outside under careful organization.
You don't have to organize or join a full-fledged workers' union if you don't want to, though. At the very least, you should be connecting with the coworkers in your facility and your peers in your specialty. Solidarity has tremendous benefits both mentally and economically. You can lean on the expertise of your fellows, and you can find and provide a sympathetic ear when problems arise.
That said, unions have earned healthcare workers all their best benefits. And the resources that they provide can enable workers to use the most powerful tool that they have at their disposal: walking away.
You can leave.
When a nurse goes on strike, they are described as selfish, because they are denying their community a portion of its potential healthcare. When a governing board closes a hospital because it is no longer profitable, this is described as inevitable, even though they are denying their community the entirety of its potential healthcare. Why is that?
If you have a purely financial relationship with your employer, it can never be immoral to use the tools of finance in your interactions. If you have a friendly or familial relationship with the people who are working alongside you, they should be providing you with every possible resource to see you succeed for their own moral reasons. If either of these is not the case where you work, you have no moral obligation to remain there.
You might find success doing what you're doing now in an industry that's not healthcare. For many clinical workers, that's not an easy option, and for many administrative healthcare workers, other industries are not providing better employment. The technical term for this situation is: "major bummer."
Want to work for an organization that treats its employees well? Look for openings at one of the 150 Top Places to Work in Healthcare. (Yes, thanks to Baptist Health South Florida being on this list, you can indeed take your talents to South Beach.)
If you already work at one of those organizations, or you want to stay where you are, you can improve your circumstances by negotiating for better benefits.
You can take advantage of available resources. (While negotiating for more resources.)
Many organizations offer great benefits beyond salary. You could be working somewhere that pays off employees' student debt. You could be changing the parameters for receiving bonuses like many healthcare CEOs have. You could at least be working somewhere that gives you a pay bump for dealing with the mess that is healthcare during the pandemic.
Remind your employer of that.
Insist that your employer matches the benefits available elsewhere. But you have to be prepared, if they say no, to leave. That can be an intimidating proposition. It's expensive in the short term (if you don't have a new employer lined up who will cover transitional expenses), and it's mentally destabilizing to leave a secure environment.
But we have to remind you: if you are under constant threat of physical, mental, and/or financial harm, your work environment is not secure.
If your arm is in the gears, the most likely outcome is that you will lose an arm and the gear will keep turning. If you take your arm away and the gears stop, your old employer will need someone with two arms to get the gears turning again. Or the supply chain up and running again. Or the beds wheeling in and out of the O.R. again. Or whatever the case may be.
Your employer can't operate without sufficient resources. But neither can you. "No margin, no mission" indeed.