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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we’re not going to see “back to normal” conditions again, especially not in terms of the mental health workforce. I think a lot of us were hoping that after the pandemic the staffing issues in our field would get better; sadly, nothing could have been further from the truth. Now we’re kind of swimming around in an ocean with new currents and all of us are dealing with situations that we’re hoping won’t become the “new normal.” 

We continue to deal with serious staffing shortages, and the people that we are getting in to work with our critical patients in all fields of healthcare are not coming in with the same level of skills that they did three or four years ago. So the training models and recruitment strategies that we used then aren’t working now. We’re also dealing with a whole new generation of workers who have different needs, and we’ve had to overhaul our approach in an environment where people are burned out and struggling for new ideas. 

Just to validate what everyone’s feeling, the Emergency Medical Service Institute (EMSI) reports that there will be a shortage of up to 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026, which is consistent with data reported by the World Health Organization (Healing Magazine, Vol.27, No.2, 2022). We are going to need at least 124,000 physicians by the year 2033 and we need to hire 200,000 nurses PER YEAR just to keep up with the needs. 

You would think the best strategy here would be to focus on getting more workers and incentivizing nurses and doctors to come work in those professions – right? Well here’s the problem: many potential workers are hesitant to join the field due to the conditions people experienced during the pandemic. In 2021 the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey reported that 30% of healthcare workers were ready to hang up their scrubs completely after dealing with extreme conditions of the pandemic – which resulted in post-traumatic stress, burnout and various mental health issues. 

These nurses and doctors talk to other young people entering the field. It’s not just a matter of getting them to choose this as a profession; they’re thinking, “Will there be another pandemic? Will this happen to me?”

So, what is to be done?

Showing We Care

One answer is to find ways to decrease the stigma of mental health among healthcare workers and to protect their mental health during difficult times, not just like the pandemic but even just during a particularly bad day. 

In March 2022 President Biden signed into law the Dr. Lorna Breen Healthcare Provider Protection Act. This legislation provides funding for grants and also guidelines for healthcare organizations in how they can help their workers protect themselves against giving up completely when things are hard in their work. 

Organizations now have to step up and take advantage of opportunities from this legislation and begin building in a culture of self-care and protection for our people, so that they feel like this is a safe place for them to work. Senior leaders in healthcare organizations must champion this strategy as our field navigates these unchartered waters.

A Workforce Seeking Growth

Mental health providers have to recognize that our workforces are getting younger. Millennials and Gen Z are taking the reins, so we must start looking at what their needs are and what makes them feel really connected to their jobs so that we can retain and engage them. An Amazon survey says that 74% of these younger workers are ready to leave their jobs if leaders don’t invest in their growth. 

But what does this mean? In my experience as a leader I’ve seen that younger workers are looking for growth and opportunities. They’re extremely passionate and have so much to bring to their careers. The major difference I see between them and previous generations is that they want to do it more quickly than I’ve seen in the past. So our challenge becomes, how can we help them become upskilled more quickly so that they can reach their goals in the time frames they are looking for?

First, we have to make sure that highly talented key individuals definitely see that we care about their growth. We do that initially by helping them “grow in place.” That may include providing special certifications and trainings, teaching them different aspects of a role that would be higher in the organization than the one they’re in, giving them an opportunity to explore roles in other parts of the organization, or providing a mentor. 

We also have to find out what people want to learn. There may be things that our top talented people are interested in that we don’t know about. So asking them and finding that out is extremely important. Then we create training that matches with what they need to learn for the job they’re already in, with knowledge they’ll need for the job that they would like to have. This makes them feel like they are growing and moving and there are opportunities for them. 

A Better Way to Learn – and Train

A 2022 study by the Society for Human Resource Management and Talent LMS found that our new workforce likes to learn by simulation first, then coaching and mentoring through video, webinars and lectures, textbooks in print, short bite-sized lessons, audio/podcasts, role-playing, and lastly blogs or Internet resources.  These inclinations are important to consider when building learning and development programs. 

KidsPeace figured out early on after the pandemic that more “real-life” simulation training before entering the actual milieu would be beneficial for healthcare workers with less education. Since launching this aspect of our orientation we’ve seen a dramatic 28% increase in the use of trauma-informed interventions in the milieu, and we wholeheartedly believe this is due to having the opportunity to test out these skills in a real-life scenario and see them work. 

Some of the participants in our “Sim Lab” say, “[I feel] significantly more prepared than I would be without it,” and, “I feel well-prepared and more confident with myself, also knowing there’s a team of people there and at any time. 

Supervisors also recognize the benefit of the simulation lab; they’re seeing their new hires come out of orientation already demonstrating what they rate as 60% confidence on the floor. The data shows that people who have an opportunity to practice skills in a real-life setting, as well as process that experience and talk about it, are more likely to use those skills as they were taught. 

The simulation laboratory at KidsPeace has been in place less than a year, but based on the promising early results we plan to expand and perfect these types of trainings – not only for new workers but for all of our associates.


As we face this new phase in engaging a new kind of workforce in a post-pandemic world that is still changing and hasn’t settled down yet, the first and most important thing we must do is make that workforce feel safe. We must assure them it’s okay to address their mental health issues and that their leaders will help them do that. They need to know that though the work is hard, it is worthwhile and building a career in healthcare is not going to burn them out. 

This new generation wants to feel like their leaders care about their growth and their career and teaching them how to grow in place; the key will be finding ways to upskill them so they feel momentum even though they aren’t getting promoted right away. 

And it’s essential we change the way we train and develop our people so that it’s more meaningful – so we’re training them for the things they need to learn by involving them and asking them what they need. Once we know what to teach them, we do it in a way that will make it a memorable experience, using tools like simulation wherever we can.

The younger generations are not going to stay with us if they do not feel like we care about them as people, and they have an opportunity to move forward and grow. That is likely to be “the new normal.”

Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, MSW

Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, M.S., is Executive Director of Organizational Development, TeenCentral Director and the Oasis Response Team Agency Coordinator for KidsPeace. She has more than 25 years of experience working in children’s mental and behavioral health. In her role with the KidsPeace Oasis Response Team, she has responded to more than 120 traumatic events, offering help to KidsPeace associates and individuals in the surrounding community. She has also provided training in crisis response and spoken on the topic and many others regionally, nationally and online. Jodi holds a Masters of Counseling Psychology and has completed comprehensive exams in a general psychology doctoral program.