Nursing Strikes: Causes and Strategies

Most people are familiar with the concept of a union-led strike. But in healthcare, many may not realize that strikes can occur here as well, with nursing strikes particularly emerging as a significant challenge.

These strikes, often originating from staffing problems, can have a significant impact on healthcare systems, patients, and staff recruitment. As a healthcare recruiter, it is important to understand why nurses may strike and how that can impact your efforts.

Why nurses strike

Nursing unions originated in the 1940s, and the number of unionized nurses has increased over time, with unions now representing nurses in all 50 states. Nursing strikes, which have become more visible in recent years, can present many difficulties.

These strikes are typically the result of various complaints, usually around inadequate staffing levels, unsafe working conditions, or other contract disagreements. The outcomes can vary widely, from short-term work stoppages to prolonged strikes that cause a significant disruption of healthcare services.

In 2023 alone, nursing strikes occurred in New York, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Kansas, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, Virginia, Colorado, Missouri, and Washington. Some of these states experienced multiple strikes in 2023, and one of the strikes in New York in January 2023 involved more than 7,000 nurses.

Unraveling the staffing problem

Staffing problems are often at the center of many nursing strikes. Recruiting and retaining skilled nurses have become increasingly challenging due to multiple factors:

1. Nursing shortage

The nursing shortage has been an issue for many years and will likely continue to be for some time. Factors such as an aging population, increased healthcare needs of the population, and retirement all contribute to this shortage, and recruiting efforts are often affected.

2. Burnout and retention

Nursing is an emotionally and physically demanding profession, which can lead to burnout. Burnout is a real problem in the workforce, and keeping nurses in their positions in a high-stress environment becomes difficult. These factors combined with staffing issues compound and make burnout an even more difficult problem to solve.

3. Contract disagreements

Contracts between a nurse union and the healthcare system often address things such as compensation, benefits, and staffing ratios. Disagreements between healthcare systems and nursing unions can escalate into strikes, disrupting healthcare operations and possibly affecting patient care.

Strategies for recruiters

Recruiters are already stressed with filling nursing positions during the ongoing nursing shortage. Adding additional stressors that may be associated with nursing unions, recruiters may be wondering what they can do to help navigate these situations.

1. Proactive recruitment

It’s important to develop a comprehensive recruitment plan. Ways to accomplish this can include partnering with nursing schools, using social media, and attending job fairs. These can allow the recruiter to meet potential candidates.

2. Remember retention

Hiring nurses is only part of the solution. There should also be a focus on nurse satisfaction. Some ways of improving the satisfaction of nurses can include offering mentorship programs, professional development opportunities, and a healthy work-life balance. Nurses who are happy in their roles will be more likely to stay, reducing turnover.

Additional ways to improve nurse satisfaction include competitive compensation, flexible work schedules, and attractive benefits.

3. Collaborate and communicate

Nurses want to feel like a valued part of the healthcare system. Fostering strong relationships between healthcare facilities and nursing staff is one way for this to happen. Keeping open communication and encouraging collaboration can improve nurse satisfaction and may reduce the likelihood of strikes.

Navigating a strike

During nursing strikes, recruiters can play a role in reducing disruptions to the healthcare system. Recruiters may be called on to:

  • Provide temporary staffing solutions: Recruiters may work with temporary staffing agencies to fill nursing gaps during strikes.
  • Maintain candidate interest: Recruiters may still need to maintain the interest of potential new nurses. Continuing to build their list of possible hires will be beneficial after the strike resolves.
  • Facilitating negotiations: In some instances, recruiters may even be part of the team that helps facilitate contract negotiations by promoting discussions between healthcare facilities and nurses to help find a resolution.

Nurses are often seen as the backbone of health care, and it’s important to note that they may face challenges in their work that can lead to difficult work environments. By addressing the causes, implementing retention strategies, and fostering a collaborative environment, recruiters can contribute to maintaining a nurse workforce even during a strike.

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