The Myth of “Short Staffing”

Another weekend and another round of “working short.”  How many times have you heard that or had to respond to that statement? The mere words are enough to send shudders down the spines of even the staunchest assisted living director.  And the term “short staffed” certainly causes anxiety and stress for residents and their concerned families.  Think about what it would be like to be a resident and overhear staff say, “Well we’re short staffed AGAIN.  I hope we can make it through the shift.”

When and how often are we truly “working short?”  True short staffing would mean that we are allowing residents – those vulnerable individuals who entrust us with their care – to be in unsafe situations.  Think about when you have dealt with a so-called “short staffing” situation.  How did you handle it?  You may have contacted an agency for interim staff, you may have asked staff to stay over or to come in early, you may have required your salaried management team to come in, or you may have even worked a shift yourself (or several!).  Regardless, it is highly unlikely that you allowed a “short staffing” situation to exist in your building.  Doing so would be unethical and could jeopardize your community’s care and reputation.

Rather, we have conditions that may allow for “minimum staffing.” Minimum staffing is when we may not have our preferred ratios but we do have enough staff to safely and competently meet the needs of the precious individuals we serve.  No, we are not “short staffed” although we may be down a person.  We may not have more than enough but we do have adequate levels of trained, caring staff to meet the residents’ care and service needs.

Preferred staffing is when we are wonderfully staffed at our preferred and stated ratios.  This is when everyone shows up, things are operating smoothly and efficiently, and it’s a good, good day.

Maximum staffing is the maximum amount of staff allowed for special events or crisis situations.  For example, if there is an infectious outbreak or a community celebration or some other cause that would necessitate additional staffing numbers, what is the maximum amount of staff that would be allowed?

Once you have your minimum, preferred, and maximum staffing ratios established, how is this communicated to your team (including your management and front line teams?).  How is it communicated to residents and families?  Do staff know what to do when a minimum staffing situation occurs?  How often are staffing levels evaluated for effectiveness especially as resident needs and acuity change over time?

Framing the discussion, communicating the terms, and advance planning for management of staffing situations can assist us to better manage staffing challenges.  Doing so ultimately helps us better serve the individuals who trust us to be there for them.

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