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Covid, Healthcare Workers And The Rise Of The Gig Economy—Lessons For Every Industry

Every business leader I know will tell you that the past two years have been unlike anything they have seen in their careers. Supply chains have broken, costs have soared and consumer expectations of businesses have shifted. Perhaps most significantly, the relationship between businesses and the people who work for them has drastically changed.

There are currently 3.5 million fewer workers in the U.S. then there were two years ago. Since February 2020, job openings have gone up by an astounding 50%, while total employment in the U.S. has gone slightly down. Armed with the leverage of drastically higher demand than available supply, workers are calling for—and getting—not only increases in pay, but also choices in when, how and where they work.

Nowhere have these impacts been felt more drastically than in healthcare. During the times that our hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, outpatient facilities were swamped with patients avoiding hospitals. Many nurses who have been on the front lines of caring for critically ill patients have succumbed to overwhelming pressure in the midst of so much death. According to a 2021 study from Health Affairs, nearly 100,000 nurses exited the profession last year—most of them under the age of 50. Their departure left those remaining with even more to do and fewer colleagues to help. Citing their work as negatively affecting their well-being, 32% of nurses have said they may leave the profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that we’ll need to fill nearly 200,000 nurse vacancies a year until 2030.

It hasn’t only been nurses who have felt the impact: Nearly everyone involved in our healthcare system is re-evaluating their vocation. At the other end of the spectrum, healthcare executives are retiring or changing industries in droves. Physicians also report they are choosing early retirement or leaving the full-time practice of medicine for other kinds of work.

To make matters worse, patients are sicker than they have ever been. Nearly every hospital is seeing increases in patient acuity, largely driven by care that was delayed during the pandemic. And chronic disease and obesity continue to be primary drivers of U.S. healthcare service consumption. All of this comes at a time when we are on the precipice of a drastic increase in the demand for patient care, driven by aging baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 75 last year.

It should come as no surprise that the crisis Covid-19 created has driven a dramatic shift from traditional employment to contingent or gig work among healthcare professionals. After experiencing the chaos of the pandemic, clinicians are seeking the control that gig work gives them over when, how and where they work. Gig healthcare workers will tell you it is about much more than pay: It’s having the ability to manage their own health and well-being by moving in and out of different care settings—and the workforce in general—when they want.

I was recently speaking with a locum tenens physician—a doctor who works temporarily in various practice settings. He was telling me about how he had responded to a colleague who asked him what he did to manage burnout. “I don’t get burned out,” he said, “because I work as a locum. If you are a locum and you are burned out, you aren’t doing it right.” Incidentally, that doctor was about to take three months off to give himself a much-needed post-Covid break.

There are steps the healthcare industry can and must take to meet these challenges. Certainly, technology and structural changes—such as the design of care teams—will play a significant role. But perhaps most importantly, healthcare employers must rethink how they engage with their healthcare providers.

There are two learnings from this experience that I believe are relevant to every industry right now:

• Businesses must improve not only how they acquire contingent workers but, more importantly, our ability to effectively onboard them into work processes that have been redesigned to utilize them. The contingent workforce is real and growing, and every business must figure out how to embrace it. According to SIA, 52 million Americans performed contingent work in 2020, representing 35% of the entire U.S. workforce—a number that Statista expects to go to almost 51% by 2027. In response, we have to restructure our organizations to effectively engage contingent workers.

• We must figure out how to give full-time staff the benefits that people are seeking in contingent work. We must build work schedules that afford flexibility. We need to give people more control in when, how and where they work. And as leaders, we must not only allow, but sometimes require, that people engage in activities that help them rest and achieve more balance in their lives.

Our healthcare system is facing tremendous challenges in caring for the coming tidal wave of patients, and we are starting with fewer colleagues at our side. However, as leaders, we have the opportunity to create environments for our people that allow them to live up to the ideal that every one of us who has chosen healthcare as a career has: caring for people in their most vulnerable moments.

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