Value-Based Care

COVID Lessons: Staffing for Surges and the Burnout Blind Spot

How to staff for a surge while focusing on quality care.

Identify and anticipate staffing needs.

One of the most prominent challenges health systems face during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is to maintain adequate staffing. A surge of patient admissions, rapid changes to hiring protocol, and a shortage of labor leads to ineffective care and – ultimately – physician burnout.

Achieving quality care during a surge is dependent on proactive mitigation strategies. The CDC states that, “maintaining appropriate staffing in healthcare facilities is essential to providing a safe work environment for healthcare personnel (HCP) and safe patient care.”

During a surge in patient admissions, it is essential to identify and anticipate staffing needs. It allows for strategic planning and allocation of labor in preparation for further or continued crisis.

Completing a needs assessment allows a health system to understand:

    • where labor is currently dispersed,
    • where labor can be redistributed, and
    • what areas need additional assistance.

This assessment applies to all departments that support a health system.


Invest in mental health.

When developing your plan, a focus on mental health is non-negotiable since burnout during a sustained crisis response is inevitable. While responding to and preparing for a staffing crisis, it’s important to invest in your physicians and team members’ mental health. All staff benefit from breaks to rest and recharge, appropriate space for bereavement, and on-going support for anxiety, depression, and moral distress. (
The HNI Human Resources team has initiated an Employee Assistance Program to help address personal issues our providers are facing. This service connects providers to guidance consultants, who are available 24 hours day, that listen to their concerns and can refer them to local in-person or video counseling.
Recently, an in-person guidance session was organized at one of our hospitals to discuss COVID-19 and the effect it had on the team. After the session, we received the following feedback from our providers:
“Great environment and opportunity to meet as a team and discuss feelings we tend to hide.”
“Sense of relief after openly talking about it.”
“Allowed me to see my peers are feeling the same way I do, just haven’t openly expressed it.”


Prioritize communication.

In addition, health systems can be efficient in their deployment of surge staffing plans by creating transparent and consistent communication with their staff. Updating current employees on plans to reassign roles or bring on new hires maintains a cohesive quality care pipeline without fear of unannounced change.

Even with a detailed plan and ongoing communication, a major pain-point remains the ability to hire and train additional staff quickly. says that “the biggest time-waster in any staffing process is the back-and-forth between HR and hiring managers for application review, interview set-up, conducting interviews, etc. In a crisis, the clinical delivery staff will not have time to devote to the massive, urgent interviewing required to fill positions quickly.”


Identify proactive staffing initiative.

The solution: A supplemental staffing system built to aid in patient volume fluctuation.

Health systems finding themselves short of labor need to rapidly identify individuals who are committed to compliance and quality, properly credentialed, and evaluated so that it is apparent that their goals and values match that of the organization.

Minimizing the use of temporary staffing and instead utilizing an at-the-ready, knowledgeable clinical team boosts efficiency and positive patient outcomes.

HNI has recruited and developed a team of physicians ready to assist practices at a moment’s notice. Learn more about how we utilize our National Provider Team.


Share your experience.

Investing in mental health, prioritizing communication, and identifying proactive staffing initiatives can ease the burden of patient surges. We’d love to hear from you as you implement the above strategies within your health system.




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