Caring for Our Senior Living Leaders

Employee Benefits, Property & Casualty, Senior Living & Social Services, War For Talent

The staffing crisis that plagues senior living is no secret. When we think of this issue, most people automatically think about the lack of caregivers and nurses. However, we are starting to see an increasing number of senior living facility leaders leaving to pursue opportunities outside of the field.

This trend is worrisome. The exponentially growing rate of seniors in our communities necessitates experienced administrators and directors to manage these operations, yet these leaders are being pushed to the limit day in and day out. The line of thought that, in senior living, “that’s just the job” just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Senior living organizations need to take a hard look at their culture and act purposefully to recruit and retain quality frontline leaders. Let’s explore some strategies to better care for these leaders, including work-life balance alternatives, work efficiencies, outsourcing resources, and supporting emotional well-being.

Senior Living Leaders: One Person’s Shoulders are Only So Big

We know the heavy load that senior living leaders carry, often taking on more to prevent their team from becoming overworked in fear of losing them. This is not a sustainable long-term strategy, and is actually a critical part of the burnout common in these positions.

Share the Responsibility

  • It is very common for front-line senior living care leaders to be on call 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year. There are not many jobs where that is the expectation, and yet we normalize this in senior living. Just the thought of knowing that you may get a call at any moment is a stressor in itself. Organizations should consider looking at how to share this “on-call” responsibility. One option would be to rotate ‘on call’ weeks among the leadership/management team, potentially including CEOs and COOs in the rotation.
  • It is no surprise that weekends at senior living facilities can often lead to multiple calls to the administrator/director for various reasons, mostly due to lack of management presence. Implementing a “Weekend Manager” program where the leadership/management team form a rotation of physically being in the building, can reduce off hour phone calls to the administrator/director, as well as the need for them to come in unexpectedly on a weekend.
  • Senior living organizations are proud when they manage all services “in-house”, but outsourcing some services may be an opportunity to lighten the load for your front-line leaders. Services such as dietary, housekeeping, laundry, therapy, IT, and some HR functions (e.g. FMLA and unemployment administration) are areas to consider outsourcing. Some may present a cost savings and others may not – however, it is just as important to weigh the time spent and stress incurred to manage each of these areas simultaneously.

Empower Employees

  • In order for the aforementioned items to be successful, effective delegation and cross-training need to occur. Delegation does not come naturally for many front-line senior living leaders. Senior leadership may need to provide training, tools, and resources to help them practice this skill, empowering front-line leaders to delegate as needed.
  • Not only should front-line leaders delegate to their management team, but this practice can be embedded in an organization’s culture to stem all the way to all front-line employees. Employees can be empowered to handle many concerns without escalation to a supervisor or administrator/director. Instilling trust and clear expectations with front-line employees can minimize formal resident/family complaints or grievances, in turn reducing the workload for front-line leaders.

Get involved

  • C-Suite visibility, involvement, and support is essential to retain front-line senior living leaders. Oftentimes CEOs, COOs, and other high-level leadership take more of a “hands-off” approach in an attempt to give front-line leaders freedom and space to perform. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, C-suite executives still need to know what is going on in their organizations in order to support those who are on the front lines, and be ready to jump in and get their hands dirty when needed. In making front-line leaders feel supported, actions speak louder than words.

Cut the Fat in your Senior Living Leader’s Day

The question of “What does your typical day look like?” is always a tough one to answer as a front-line leader in senior living. These individuals really are jacks of all trades, masters of some. It’s time that organizations take a look at everything that administrators/directors are responsible for and “cut the fat”. Assess whether certain tasks can be delegated elsewhere or eliminated altogether.

Start with looking at meeting schedules. Are the meetings you have absolutely necessary to accomplish what needs to be done? Instill a “minimal meetings” culture in which meetings are limited only to truly necessary circumstances. Make the preferred method of communication a phone call or face-to-face conversation instead. If certain meetings cannot be eliminated, perhaps they can be shortened. Don’t let ineffective meetings exist just because that is what has always been done. It’s okay to break senior living norms if it means fostering a more productive, happier team.

Encourage frontline leaders to schedule certain, limited times during the day dedicated to e-mail, and teach them to work in blocks of time committed to certain tasks rather than jumping from one thing to another.

Care for the Person Inside of the Leader

Being a front-line senior living leader, while rewarding and wonderful, can take a mental toll after a period of time. To curb the number of senior living leaders leaving, and attract more talented individuals into the field, organizations should consider implementing action that address the mental health and work-life balance of its leaders:

  • Take a stronger approach to frontline leaders using paid time off (PTO). Too often these individuals feel they cannot take an entire week away from work, or take PTO in general. Consider an organizational policy for these individuals that mandates a “PTO lockout” in which they must take at least an entire work week away with their e-mail disabled and no on-call responsibility. Consider not allowing PTO payouts for unused time so leaders are more apt to take PTO.
  • Provide a multiple-month sabbatical as an option to administrators/directors for professional development, education, or mental health purposes. With extremely high-stress roles, one to two weeks is often just not enough time to reset and recharge. The amount of time away would be similar to the amount of time it would take the organization to fill this role if the individual is driven to resign. An experienced, rejuvenated leader will perform at a higher level, and at a lower overall cost than training new talent. 
  • While we know front-line senior living leaders need to be physically present at their facilities the majority of the time, there is still opportunity to provide options for working remotely. Remote work is very appealing to many people, so if the senior living industry does not figure out a way to incorporate this to some degree, front-line leaders will continue to leave for positions where this is an option. Another idea to consider: having flexibility around days and hours worked would be a great benefit for work-life balance.
  • What senior living staff and leaders have endured throughout the pandemic is nothing short of amazing. Incorporating resilience training and exercises in work assignments has proven to improve employee morale. There are a number of online tools that organizations can look to implement in this area.

The senior living industry will continue to see great people leave if things do not change. Taking care of your employees and prioritizing burnout prevention will translate into better care for the residents/clients of your senior living organization.

While the items discussed in this article are not one-size-fits-all – and there are plenty of other major stressors not mentioned here (i.e., staffing, regulations, and financial sustainability) – senior living organizations can start taking steps to improve the state of mind of those you entrust with so much responsibility. The future of senior living care depends on it.

Reach out to your M3 senior living account executive for a sample Executive Needs & Interest Survey, as well as a sample Stay Interview.

Key Takeaways

As an industry, senior living needs to make these possibilities a reality. Consider the following takeaways:

  • Complete an Executive Needs & Interests Survey and/or Stay Interview with leadership
  • Share on-call responsibilities
  • Delegate by cross-training and empowering
  • Outsource what you can
  • Executive leadership have skin in the game
  • Create more efficient work practices
  • Mandate time off
  • Implement a more flexible work schedule
  • Care for mental health


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