The Great Resignation — Managing the Impact on Research Teams

Among other things, 2021 will be known as the year of The Great Resignation, or in many sectors, the great retirement. Record numbers of employees left their jobs. Nearly four and a half million Americans left their jobs in September 2021, the highest number on record since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data 20 years ago. The numbers show a 40 percent increase over the same period in 2020.

The healthcare sector has not been spared. According to the report, 589,000 U.S. workers resigned or retired from health care and social assistance positions. A children’s hospital in Ohio recently put out a call for clinical volunteers to help support staffing shortages. A study in Utah in April that tested the sentiments of nearly 28,000 University of Utah Health system clinical and non-clinical faculty, staff and trainees found that 20 percent of respondents, 1 in 5, are considering leaving their professions.

Economists and pundits are untangling the possible reasons for this massive change in the labor market. Some suggest The Great Resignation is driven by massive burnout among workers. Others point to stagnant wages, lack of career growth opportunities, and challenging work conditions. Yet others suggest that employees who have been working from home simply do not want to return to the office and prefer the flexibility offered during the pandemic.

Various studies had projected a shortage of healthcare workers even before COVID-19. But early studies suggest the pandemic may have accelerated the trend.

The trend may continue. A recent Gallup survey found that 48 percent of the working population in the United States is actively job searching. Studies show that the trend is driven by mid-career employees — those between 30 and 45 years old as well as those close to retirement age that decided to retire after the height of the pandemic. This can suggest a loss of critical experience and expertise, in addition to the drop in engagement and productivity.

Recruiting, hiring, and training new research staff is expensive and time-consuming. This effort may impact the ability of research sites’ to manage current clinical trials or even start new trials in 2022.  The disruption in staffing also may pose risks, since much of the work requires a fine-tuned attention to detail that may be lost as staff including coordinators, research nurses, and principal investigators transition to roles outside of research or move to other organizations.

To mitigate these risks, leaders must address employee disengagement on multiple fronts — long-term and short-term. In the long term, research leaders need to evaluate how to retain and engage experienced workers to minimize turnover. In the short term, workers must be protected from overwork and potential burnout, and offered the opportunity to engage in meaningful work with flexibility.

To achieve this, research administrators and leaders can consider these strategies:

  • Increase learning opportunities — Beyond the required training and certifications for clinical research coordinators and other staff, leaders should provide additional online learning opportunities. A June 2021 survey with Amazon, Gallup found that 57 percent of U.S. workers want to update their skills and 48 percent would consider switching jobs to do it.

Advanced training and “upskilling” can include courses in project management for clinical trials; preventing and identifying misconduct and noncompliance; financial management of clinical trials; subject recruitment and retention; statistics and data management of clinical trials; and specialty areas including  regulatory compliance.

  • Cultivate career development — The same Gallup study showed that the primary reason people change jobs is for career growth opportunities. Training can position early-career staff for additional responsibilities, which then provides research sites with a deeper bench of talent for advancement.

Managing clinical trials requires many administrative tasks that, while important, may be less professionally fulfilling. Having a clearly communicated path for career growth and advancement can incentivize employees to stay.

  • Create flexible work environments — Starting and running clinical trials requires a high degree of staffing flexibility as workloads shift. Outsourcing the administrative burden can enable site staff to focus on strategic needs while filling in short-term gaps. The result can be more efficient resource management and consistency in research infrastructure.

The Great Resignation of 2021 shows no signs of slowing in the new year. Research sites must create and nurture environments for employee career growth and engagement to remain competitive.