In recent months, the number of media stories dedicated to over-demand in hospitals has increased. Record-high ambulance ramping and hospital wait times have dominated coverage, with unions, industry bodies and frontline staff calling on whoever will listen, to help stem the flow of patients and overhaul systems that are struggling to keep up.
At the same time, attacks on aged care staff, hospital workers and paramedics have also risen, with combined reports indicating thousands of people who dedicate their lives to caring for others are being abused and assaulted each year, as they perform their duties.
Overstretched and under-resourced, our nurses, doctors and carers are doubling down, pulling extra shifts, with exhaustion an exceedingly common concern.
The good news is, these challenges aren’t going unnoticed.
The state of our healthcare system, and these issues specifically, are already under the microscope. Remuneration is a headline, patient outcomes is a headline, funding is a headline.
Yet, lurking beneath these glaring issues is a silent crisis, often overlooked: staff morale.
In an industry where 1 in 10 staff reported thoughts of suicide or self harm during the pandemic, morale is a major issue impacting too many of the more than 400,000 people who provide care to others in hospitals.
In 2020, the Frontline Healthcare Workers Study — one of the largest Australian surveys of this group — reported almost 71% of participants were experiencing moderate to severe burnout, while more than half were experiencing anxiety and depression.
Post-covid, those challenges continued, and in 2021, staff turnover climbed as high as 26% as workers left their hospitals, or worse, left the industry entirely.
This increase in turnover not only costs hospitals recruitment and replacement fees; valuable knowledge and experience is also lost, while culture continues to suffer.
For HR teams and hospital leaders already under pressure in a myriad of ways, the battle to maintain a positive culture in the face of this ongoing cycle is one more seemingly insurmountable challenge they just don’t need.
So, what’s the antidote, when an ageing population, a lack of funding, a lack of GPs, and systematic issues that stretch beyond the hospital and are deeply embedded across various institutions, continue to increase demand?
The fact is, no one easy answer to this growing set of problems exists, but evolving health technology can provide a way to treat many of the symptoms, while the health system continues its search for a cure.
Beyond Burnout: What Causes Low Morale?
While the Covid pandemic exacerbated problems with morale and culture, it didn’t create them – they were already very much alive and well.
But overwork, burnout and safety concerns are just the tip of the iceberg. Hospitals, much like other businesses, also struggle with several common issues that can leave their staff feeling overwhelmed, insecure, lacking in confidence and exhausted.
Roberta University notes some of these issues include an intellectually unstimulating environment, poor communication, a lack of empowerment, and poor interpersonal relationships.
HR Daily reinforces this, highlighting communication as a problem, and pinpointing a lack of clarity around expectations, tools to do the job properly, and a failure to address issues and complainants, as other key areas of challenge.
In bustling organisations, with a hive of employees, and 24/7 non-stop demand, expecting leaders and management to address — and single-handedly rectify — these issues, without tools to make the processes less laborious and less time-consuming, is a big ask.
It’s easy to say they should be able to focus on fixing morale, but in critical environments like these, the luxury of focus on just one area is not often a reality. In less intense environments — in run-of-the-mill office jobs — managers usually only need to deal with this in one or two staff at a time, and even then, improving their morale and addressing their concerns can take months.
Managing individuals and their feelings is important, but ultimately it is just a Bandaid (though a useful one, as it conveys genuine care and value). Only by looking at the cause and improving hospital operations can some of these strains and stressors be lightened, bringing comfort to staff, their leaders, and patients.
Technology: the New Wave of Morale-boosting Tools
While there is no silver bullet, no clear-cut single answer to the challenges posed by low morale and the factors that cause it, existing and emerging technology offers an opportunity for vast improvement.
As a foundation, integration and automation software allow data to seamlessly be gathered from every corner of hospitals and brought together — fast — to provide valuable insights that supercharge operations. This can make tasks quicker, less labour-intensive, clearer and even completely automated, giving staff back valuable time that can be spent elsewhere.
Asset tracking pinpoints the location of any hospital asset, from wheelchairs to ventilators, saving staff countless hours searching.
Task management and better system-based communication, especially automated messages and updates, can help to set clear expectations and a shared understanding of what a staff member has been tasked to do and when and how that should be done.
This clarity again reduces pressure and conflict, and streamlines processes, while also minimising micro management, and enabling staff to get on with what they need to do.
Other technology that supports clinical practices like EMR can help lower errors caused due to fatigue and related issues — errors that can lead to stress and conflict.
Monitors can likewise stop injury before it even occurs and keep a ‘digital eye’ on patients 24/7, increasing patient care and comfort, and cutting down on emergencies and deaths, while telemedicine promises to alleviate hospital overcrowding.
Hospitals are just beginning to see the value new technology can bring to processes and people. As they harness the power of better data management, integration, automation, and improved communication, there’s hope on the horizon. With technology as a compass, we can navigate the morale crisis and chart a course toward a brighter, more resilient healthcare future.