A Resourceful Way to Meet Behavioral Health Staffing Demands

A Resourceful Way to Meet Behavioral Health Staffing Demands

An unlikely labor pool provides timely relief for the behavioral health crisis amid staffing shortages.

It all began with a simple call for volunteers.

Facing widespread staffing shortages and increasing patient needs in late 2020 and early 2021, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago reached out across its organization for extra hands to assist its strained nursing staff in any way possible—even if simply to perform minor tasks like delivering water or blankets to patient rooms.

But when the responses started flowing in, it became clear this was going to be a larger—and more impactful—project.

“Human resources sent me a list of all these people who wanted to help, and it was quite overwhelming because the majority of the people volunteering to help had no clinical background,” says Jillian Rojas, M.S., RN, NE-BC, director of patient care operations at Lurie Children’s. “We started to realize that we could train these individuals to provide one-to-one care for observations so that we could get nurses and nursing assistants back on the floor.”

The effects of the pandemic not only exacerbated an existing nursing shortage but also increased the need for pediatric behavioral health services. Lurie Children’s had an immediate need for patient sitters to alleviate some of the demands facing the nursing staff. Thus, the hospital’s volunteer list evolved into a labor pool of patient sitters.

Training up behavioral health staff

Rojas and her team developed a four-hour orientation session to educate and train the employees to safely provide the necessary patient care. To accommodate the large number of volunteers and ensure common patient scenarios are addressed, the training includes simulated exercises. “The simulations give us the opportunity to practice some of the scripting and those ‘what-would-you-do’ situations,” says Christina Wilbur, M.A. Ed., M.S.N., RN, CPN, nursing professional development practitioner. “They provide a better learning opportunity and have been very well-received.”

The labor pool management team works closely with HR and the other departments at Lurie Children's to coordinate sitters’ shifts with their regular work schedules and determine overtime or flex pay rates for patient sitters, as needed. The labor pool’s impact on patient care has been substantial: since the program’s inception just over a year ago, the patient sitters have accounted for nearly 7,000 hours of coverage. It wouldn’t have been possible to that extent in a traditional hiring process.

“The turnaround time was huge—we were able to get people on the floor within weeks, compared to the typical hiring and onboarding process that takes months,” Wilbur says. “We needed a quick fix, and we’ve developed it really well, so it’s become sustainable.”

Promoting well-being for employees and behavioral health patients

In addition to freeing up nurses to spend more time working at the top of their licenses, the labor pool patient sitters have had a direct impact on patient wellbeing. “A lot of these patients just need a friend; they need that engagement,” Wilbur says.

But the program has also provided unintended benefits to the employees filling those roles. The patient interaction gives non-clinical workers an opportunity to gain a stronger connection to the hospital’s mission. “Because they are currently removed from direct patient care, they want to be hands-on and help the nurses,” says Amy Alverez, BSN, RN, CPN, patient care operations manager. “It's pretty great to see.”

Additionally, the team says they’ve seen numerous instances of employees who are now pursuing further education or training to advance their careers in patient care as a result of this experience.

“We've had conversations about upskilling some people within this labor pool and how we can move them beyond just the one-to-one observation to maybe getting an assignment on the floor,” Wilbur says. “As a nursing professional development practitioner, I think it's wonderful.”

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