More than money: exploring the urgent frontline worker shortage


The COVID-19 global pandemic challenged individuals, businesses, and even entire countries.

And, unfortunately, as infections spread and hospitalization rates soared, the frontline workers bore the brunt of the stress. 

Despite being recognized for their heroic efforts, overworked nurses and other medical professionals have found the pressure too high and leave their jobs in waves, causing a huge worker shortage.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Essential businesses such as grocery stores, social services, and public transportation also struggle to keep frontline workers on staff.

Despite U.S. COVID infection rates declining in the first half of 2021, quit rates have continued to rise in the retail, hospitality, medical, and social assistance industries.

Although vaccines make it possible for communities to reopen, businesses are having a hard time finding and keeping employees.

To avoid a frontline labor shortage, businesses need to understand how the pandemic has affected frontline workers and why they leave.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

A little background on frontline workers

In 2020, the United States had more than 31 million frontline workers. Health care professionals made up roughly 50% of all frontline workers, followed by grocery store employees, child care providers, social services employees, building services, and public transit employees.

Breakdown of frontline workers in the United States by job type

During pre-pandemic times, Americans who worked frontline jobs already experienced lower than average job satisfaction and higher turnover rates. For example, since 2016, the average hospital in the United States has experienced a turnover of 90% of its workforce. 

What’s more? Frontline workers such as medical administrators, healthcare social workers, and cashiers fall in the bottom 15% of job satisfaction metrics. 

How the global pandemic affected frontline health care workers

According to a national survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, 62% of frontline workers feel the worry and stress stemming from the global pandemic have harmed their mental health. 

The survey also reveals that more than 40% of frontline health care workers have experienced adverse effects on their physical health and relationships due to the pandemic. 

Concerns about exposure to the virus remained a top source of stress for health care workers. However, ICU overloads and lack of protective gear also added to the daily worries of workers in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.

When asked about the effect of COVID-19 stress at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Dr. Cam Patterson said, “We’ve literally had nurses who walk out in the middle of a shift because they can’t take it anymore.”

A look at staffing shortages outside of healthcare

Many people working in essential industries outside of healthcare also risked exposure to the COVID-19 virus as part of their work. Concerns about the virus combined with employee burnout have led to staffing shortages in other areas of the labor market.

Manufacturing labor shortage

A study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found 77% of manufacturers face hiring difficulties in 2021, and they expect the trend to continue next year and beyond. The study projects the skills gap will result in 2.1 million unfilled open positions in the manufacturing job market and cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion.

Retail/restaurant labor shortage

One Fair Wage, an organization that supports restaurant workers earning a fair minimum wage, found 54% of restaurant workers have considered leaving their job since the pandemic began. 

Many restaurant workers found themselves caught between enforcing COVID-19 safety precautions and risking lower tips or customer harassment for doing so. 

More than half of the survey respondents reported experiencing decreased tips or customer harassment related to enforcing COVID-19 safety precautions.

Nikki Grigg of Linda’s Seabreeze Café in Santa Cruz told GoodTimes newspaper that “we get a lot of eye rolls, a lot of sighs, and a lot of ‘This is ridiculous.’” 

Not to mention servers also have to take on more cleaning and sanitization tasks on top of all the work they’re already doing.

Tipped worker shortage reasons for leaving graphic

Image Source

In July of 2021, the Department of Labor estimated 965,000 job openings in the retail industry. Like restaurant staff, retail workers faced increased worry over infection and mistreatment from customers related to enforcing safety protocols. 

Frontline Employee Engagement in 2023

Blink created this guide after working with hundreds of frontline organizations. Now, these insights can help other leaders prepare for a year that promises both challenge and opportunity.

Download to learn: The top eight frontline engagement trends to watch out for and the six key strategies for success

Why frontline workers leave

As businesses and governments balance precautionary shutdowns with economic growth, frontline workers occupy a difficult spot between the business and its customers. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated existing issues that cause frontline workers to leave and seek other work. 

Justin Meschler, an anesthesiologist from Colorado, told the Washington Post, “You look at staffing, preparedness, what the priorities were for many hospitals during the crisis, and it’s clear the industry is driven by profits rather than the well-being of patients or health workers. It makes you question the whole system.”

The stress of the pandemic led Meschler and many other workers to a breaking point where they didn’t trust that their employers cared about them. 

Here’s a closer look at why frontline workers leave.

Exhaustion and burnout

Work-related burnout remains one of the most significant stressors for frontline workers, especially during the pandemic. Employees experiencing burnout face physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion resulting in workplace alienation and decreased performance. 

Mental health concerns

Three in ten workers sought out mental health services for help coping with pandemic-related stress. Work-related stress leaked over into employee’s lives and caused trouble sleeping, increased headaches, and an increase in alcohol and drug use.

Graph of stress-related symptoms related to the frontline worker shortage

Low pay rates

Essential workers make up 47% of all employees earning less than $15/hour on average. Jobs with low wages include personal care aides, cashiers, retail salespersons, security guards, and home health aides. 

So, many essential workers facing an increased risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus already fall close to or below the poverty line. 

When federal unemployment benefits exceed frontline job paychecks, employees don’t have enough motivation to return to a stressful workplace.

How to attract and retain frontline workers

Even though higher wages may entice some frontline workers to stay, financial incentives alone can’t solve the labor shortage. Chronic underfunding has led to employee burnout and mental health concerns that only worsened during the global pandemic. 

To attract and retain frontline workers, businesses need to put employee well-being at the forefront of company culture and ensure they have resources to prevent exhaustion and unnecessary stress.

Here are a few ways your business can attract and retain frontline workers.

Embrace a culture of recognition

If you want to increase employee retention, you need to make employees the heart of your culture. In particular, frontline workers want to feel they are a part of something bigger and want their contributions to be recognized.

Lack of recognition is a leading cause of employee turnover. Fostering a culture that embraces recognition tells your employees you see them and appreciate when they go above and beyond. 

In fact, 69% of employees surveyed by Achievers listed increased recognition as a factor that encourages them to stay with employers.

Communicate more effectively

Most frontline workers consider effective communication a job benefit, and 69% of people would be more likely to stay with their employer if internal communication was improved.

Creating a better internal communication strategy starts with leveraging two-way communication. Ask your frontline employees where you can improve and establish channels so they can provide feedback and feel heard.

Offer growth opportunities

Growth and development is another area where leadership and frontline workers don’t see eye to eye. For example, 90% of senior leaders feel satisfied with training and development programs in the manufacturing industry, but only 66% of employees agree. 

Professional development matters for frontline employees. As an employer, you need to outline clear career paths for your frontline workers and offer development opportunities to help them hone their skills. 

If your frontline workers see their job as an investment in their overall careers, they’re more likely to stay with you. 

Prioritize employee well-being

If the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that mental health has a significant impact on the labor force. 

As the delta variant pushes infection rates back up, employers can start by providing adequate sick leave and ensuring frontline workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Businesses can also provide mental health resources and work with leaders and managers to cultivate a culture where frontline workers feel comfortable bringing up mental health concerns.

Wrapping it up – more than money: exploring the frontline worker shortage

As the economy continues reopening, business owners worry about having enough workers to operate at full capacity and maintain a positive customer experience. 

Higher annual and hourly wages can help fill open jobs, but it will take more to address the frontline worker staffing shortage. 

To retain frontline workers, employers of large and small businesses should cultivate a culture where employees feel part of something bigger and have room for growth. 

Learn more about improving employee retention with Blink today.

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