Long Commute Times Influence Nurse Retention

Long commute times have a huge impact on recruitment and retention in many industries, including healthcare — an issue that needs more attention, according to an internationally-known human resource and talent management expert.

It’s not so much the actual distance, as it is the time involved to travel that distance.

“A lengthy commute time affects a person’s work by reducing their job performance,” said John Sullivan, PhD, professor of management at San Francisco State University. “Their job performance suffers for some time before they actually leave their job. The employee suffers with added stress and fatigue, productivity drops and there’s a loss of family time. In the nursing profession stakes are high. If a nurse’s performance drops due to exhaustion, they can make a mistake and a patient can die.”

Data shows it takes approximately 18 months of enduring frustration for employees to quit their jobs and find an employer that is quicker to get to with a shorter commute, Sullivan said.

Where nurses live affects how far they are willing to commute

Some nurses are more willing to undertake a longer commute than others, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Nurse.com. This willingness to spend more time driving to work versus not being willing to do so, varies by state, according to the survey.

The state in which nurses were willing to commute the farthest is Mississippi at 38 miles, followed closely by South Dakota (37 miles), Delaware (35 miles) and New Hampshire and Alabama (34 miles).

The reasons nurses in some states are willing to travel farther than nurses in others can vary. Sullivan said one reason a nurse may be more tolerable of a longer commute is likely related to smaller populations and less traffic, resulting in shorter drive times.

commute times

The states in which nurses desired the shortest distance commute include Hawaii (18 miles) followed by Alaska, New York and Oregon — all tied at 22 miles.

“In addition to heavy or light traffic, the weather and the lifestyle that goes with it in each state also plays a big role,” Sullivan said. “Lousy weather and great weather states see the same result with regard to desired commute times. In states where nurses want the shortest commute, such as Hawaii, people want to get home from work quickly to make the most of what’s left of the day and enjoy the beautiful weather. States with harsh weather can have the same impact. In a state like Alaska, where there can be extremely cold temperatures and dangerous road conditions, the shortest drive possible is also desired but for different a reason.”

Theresa Mazzaro, RN, CHCR, communications director with the National Association for Health Care Recruitment, and senior talent acquisitions specialist at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda Maryland, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine, agrees with Sullivan.

“In my experience as a recruiter I’ve seen that with less traffic, people are generally willing to travel farther,” she said.

Even though Suburban Hospital is in the D.C. Metro area, which has heavy traffic, Mazzaro said the hospital cannot hire applicants based on where they live.

“The D.C. Metro area also has a high cost of living which is challenging for some staff,” she said. “This makes some staff choose to live farther away where the cost of living is lower. Living farther saves money but lengthens their commute time.”

Some nursing jobs, such as those in the OR and cath lab have an on-call requirement, which requires a maximum response time to report in 30 to 40 minutes. These types of positions are the exception to the rule.

“If a staffer can’t meet the requirement, they make use of on-site sleep rooms when they’re on-call,” said Mazzaro.

commute times

How to lessen the impact of long commute times for staff

There are ways to mitigate the impact of long commutes for nursing and other professionals, Sullivan said.

“With studies showing that 50% all employee turnover is preventable, it’s important for hospitals to use a data-driven approach to strategize and minimize the effects of a lengthy drive,” he said.

Suggested action items for healthcare administrators to consider to help with commute times, according to Sullivan, include:

  1. Adjusting start times in the morning to avoid heavy traffic hours. “The 8 AM start time is typically the worst, with night and weekend shifts generally experiencing less traffic,” said Sullivan.

  2. Using the post-exit interview three months after an employee resigns to find out what else contributed to them leaving the job. “Data shows that employees are 39% more honest with HR as to why they resigned, if the interview occurs three months later, then if they’re interviewed right when they leave and may still need references,” said Sullivan. “This is important because if a person is not happy with their work, has a boring job, is not challenged, is not given opportunities for growth, is not given feedback on the good that comes from their work, or has a lousy boss, these can add to the burden of a long commute. If the commute is long and the job is not good, a person is more likely to leave.”

  3. Keeping your superstar employees happy. Data shows when a top employee leaves, three to five more staff members will follow suit and resign soon too, Sullivan said.

  4. Conduct a “stay interview.” Data shows after 18 months of enduring frustration with a long commute or other strain an employee will resign, so conducting a stay interview at 17 months is essential, Sullivan said. “The cost is high to recruit and train a new employee,” he said. “It’s important to interview the employees you want to stay, find out what makes them happy and what they don’t like about the job before they quit. Make the work more compelling and exciting.”

  5. Encourage the use of public transportation, if available, and help subsidize the cost for employees.

  6. Providing employer-funded vans that transport 6 to 8 employees, with each person taking a turn as the driver, depending on the number of passengers. “This encourages staff to form relationships and support each other,” Sullivan said. “If one wants to quit, it makes it more difficult as their fellow van riders are likely to encourage them to stay with the group.

  7. Employer-funded buses for employees who have long commutes. “Google for example, uses buses in the Silicon Valley. When someone rides a work bus, they can read, sleep or eat. This makes the long commute less stressful. It also allows for cross-pollination of different types of staff from different departments to get to know each other, break down departmental barriers, and encourage better collaboration for work projects,” Sullivan said.

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