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Engagement is an essential part of the solution to the workforce shortage

December 21, 2017

Today’s behavioral healthcare providers face many challenges, but the real and growing issue of a workforce shortage is one that deserves more attention—and more solutions. On the one hand, the behavioral health field is among the fastest-growing employment segments in the nation. According to SAMHSA and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the addiction and mental health providers sector is on track to experience a 33.6% increase in employment of between 2010 and 2020.

The reason for this dramatic rise? Millions of Americans are living with a substance use disorder or mental illness. With the implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act, more people have insurance coverage and, in turn, more seek treatment. Furthermore, with the increased integration of primary and specialty healthcare, more individuals are screened and referred for treatment.

On the other hand, the field is experiencing a serious workforce shortage. Quite simply, there are not enough qualified behavioral health professionals to meet the overwhelming need. This is particularly true for rural communities battling the opioid epidemic. Not being able to meet the demand is one thing, but the workforce crisis is further exacerbated by high turnover rates as employees take advantage of a competitive job market.

This workforce crisis leaves executives managing behavioral health organizations feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Staff turnover comes at a high cost, not only monetary and clinically but also at the expense of organizational culture. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In this dynamic and changing environment, behavioral health organizations and providers can and must invest in strategies that keep employees engaged. Such efforts not only stabilize and strengthen organizations and improve quality of care, they also reduce costs. Replacing an employee is always more expensive - both in terms of actual costs as well as the soft costs associated with onboarding and integration.

Successful organizations know that utilizing the latest best practices—both general principles as well as those specific to behavioral health organization—result in a more engaged workforce, and a more cost-effective one. There are at least four best practices every organization should keep in mind:

1. Workforce engagement begins at the top. Successful organizations have strong leadership committed to employee satisfaction and staff retention. This vision is essential. But so is a performance-based organizational culture that embraces change and transformation. Because we all know that little problems left unaddressed can morph into big challenges. Change cannot happen without sustained leadership engagement, including a focus on manager/supervisor relationships that provide employees with accountability, trust and support.

2. Workforce engagement requires rewards, including the opportunity for meaningful work and formalized recognition programs to celebrate accomplishments. Employees need opportunities to grow and the most successful organizations provide coaching and supervision that helps employees develop the needed skills to succeed. Of course, organizations that align compensation with performance quickly become the “employer of choice.”

3. Workforce engagement is also about accountability. Organizations that effectively communicate expectations and plans, including methods to include staff in the decision-making process, consistently fare better when it comes to employee retention.

4. Workforce engagement requires addressing unrealized capacity. Organizations that can manage unrealized capacity, eliminate redundant process and support team members’ success will be well positioned to address current and future needs.

Policymakers and academics recognize the need to address the nation’s workforce crisis, particularly in the behavioral health arena. But those solutions will take time. While they are working to implement policies for expanding workforce development programs, executives and managers in the trenches can make a difference right now. They can begin by focusing on retention and recruitment, using data to drive effective and efficient workforce solutions. By committing to a comprehensive workforce engagement strategy today, we can do our part to address the problem and make our organizations and the people we serve, stronger at the same time.

Michael Flora is senior management and operations consultant at MTM Services and a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives with over 32 years in clinical and executive leadership.

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