While attracting and retaining qualified staff in the behavioral health industry has proven troublesome for some time, the post-COVID state of the workplace has intensified the challenge. A session room that was packed with executives at last month’s National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) leadership conference attested to how high-priority the subject of workforce development has become among treatment program administrators.
NAATP Director of Membership and State Advocacy Nikki Soda, who moderated the conference’s forum on workforce issues, told us treatment organizations have been seeking to meet multiple goals in an environment difficult to navigate. They are mindful of employees’ changing needs and expectations, particularly among younger generations, and they want to be responsive. At the same time, they face an immediate need for more bodies, creating a sense of desperation that can overshadow everything else.
The numbers don’t lie when it comes to the tough sledding many employers in behavioral health now face, and will continue to. A 2022 report from the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) cites psychiatry and addiction treatment as disciplines that will continue to experience worker shortages in 2030. It’s projected that if demand for behavioral health services remains at current levels, there simply won’t be enough psychiatrists or addiction counselors to deliver the care.
According to federal data, the substance use disorder workforce continues to lag behind other sectors of health care in ways that make employee retention challenging. Because insurance reimbursement for substance use treatment services remains comparatively low, treatment organizations end up paying their employees less than other healthcare facilities for the same roles, such as social work. As a result, these substance use treatment centers tend to experience higher turnover than their counterparts across the health field.
NAATP meeting organizers in Washington, D.C. last month convened a panel of executives representing a diversity of organizations based on size and payment source. The session also garnered comments from attendees who clearly were looking for workforce recruitment and retention strategies they had not yet tried. Soda said some clear patterns emerged from the discussion.
In the area of recruitment, it has become clear that the traditional outsourcing approaches don’t suffice right now. “Indeed [and others are] not pulling in enough; the competition is just so intense,” Soda said. Facilities in rural areas face the most difficult task, she said, and nursing continues to be a particularly challenging area in recruitment.
Several recruitment strategies were mentioned in the conference session. It was suggested that organizations offer existing employees an incentive for a successful referral of a qualified individual to the staff. Other providers, Soda said, are trying to raise their profile in their surrounding communities, through job fairs and similar events.
The retention piece of the puzzle remains critical, especially in workplaces where so much is being done to attract new employees that current staffers might ask, “What about us?” Several factors are driving today’s approaches to retention. First, employees today want to feel a closer connection to the mission of an organization, and this is leading more organizations to define these broader company goals more specifically for staff.
Also, “With the acuity that today’s patients are coming in with, there is a realization of how intense it is for workers to be able to continue to do what they do, and how they have to be healthy themselves,” Soda said. Strategies to promote staff wellness, both at work and via “mental health days” outside of work, therefore become essential.
NAATP has established a workforce committee made up of member executives, and it wants to be a workforce development resource for both member organizations and the larger treatment community. Harmony Foundation CEO Jim Geckler is chairing the new committee. Its vision statement reads: “The substance use disorder and mental health treatment workforce shortage has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — providers and people with lived experience face record-high overdose rates and a continued lack of access to care. The workforce committee will focus on creating solutions, collaborating with community partners, development of a more diverse workforce, and work on ideas for retention, advancement, education, career placement assistance and recruitment. We will research resources and tools to advance workforce development nationally and on state levels.”
As an organization similarly committed to advancing treatment and improving providers’ work experience, we at Sigmund Software stand proud of our association with NAATP and the industry’s forward-thinking leadership.
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