by Katie Davis
Clinical Workforce Intelligence Director

Today’s workforce is incredibly complex with more generations working side by side than ever before. Organizations are challenged by leading a multigenerational workforce with different communication preferences and tendencies, defining events, values and technological expertise and experience. These challenges are only intensified by the stress of COVID-19. Time will tell how the pandemic will shape the youngest generation, but what we already know may provide some clues for optimizing the workforce now and in the future when the pandemic is over.

Health care leaders have worked with baby boomers and Generation X for quite some time and are familiar with what drives them. As I wrote in a previous blog post, research shows that baby boomers (56-74 years old) are strong willed, have a great sense of loyalty and are team oriented. Often, they equate work with fulfillment and self-worth. Those from Generation X (44-55 years old) were born in a period of rapid change and are therefore adaptable to change. They appreciate work life balance and feel that quality of life is important.

Millennials (26-40) are used to instant communication, a world where social networking and technology are the norm, and texting is a preferred method of communication. There are still many unknowns about Generation Z, which combined with millennials represent approximately 40% of the workforce, a percentage that continues to grow. Given their numbers, it’s worth looking at what we do know.

What drives Gen Z?

Generation Z, (iGen or Gen Z) (8-25 years old) is new to the clinical workforce scene, according to Dr. Jean Twenge, author of “IGen.” They represent 24% of the population and are growing into adulthood during the time of the smartphone. This generation does not recall a time without access to internet. Technology has infiltrated every aspect of their lives. Members of Generation Z are coming of age in a world where groceries can be delivered within an hour, fast food or Michelin star restaurants can be accessed almost instantly, bills can be paid, cabs can be hailed electronically and locations can be identified without reading a map, all without ever interacting with another person.

As a result, Gen Z brings with it a sharp decline in face to face interactions, spending an average of nine hours a day on the internet, checking their smart phone on average 80 times per day, texting, using social media and playing online games. For a comparison, millennials and baby boomers spend 5.5 hours and 5 hours on their smart phones every day respectively.

More concerning, research shows this generation is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. While all may may appear fine when viewed through the window of social media, only 45% of Generation Z reports good or excellent mental health, by far the lowest of any generation, according to the American Psychological Association. Coupled with the psychological impact clinicians are enduring while they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health and wellbeing of Generation Z clinicians should be top of mind.

Even before COVID-19 sent us into recession, Generation Z was fearful of their economic future. By now, early in their clinical careers, they have already been laid off or seen colleagues and friends laid off, furloughed or redeployed due to the impacts of the pandemic. I would anticipate that this generation will value stable employment more than ever before.

The workforce ramifications of Gen Z

The anxiety surrounding job safety in addition to the high use of smart phones will have implications in the workforce. When thinking about onboarding and retaining clinicians from Generation Z, leaders are tasked with capturing the attention of an audience that is accustomed to the world at their fingertips. The speed at which this generation consumes information and switches tasks raises concerns around attention span and ability to focus. So, how should leaders approach working with this new group? Until we learn more, leaders should keep an open mind and continue to rely on the steps I offered for managing three generations as they still apply, and are even more important, today:

  • Understand the generational makeup of your workforce and what motivates each generation
  • Engage with academic partners to understand the unique needs of the students that will soon staff your organization
  • Be willing to let things go that will no longer serve (e.g., lengthy and thorough communications to staff may not capture the attention of millennials or generation Z that are used to rapidly consuming information)

Preparing staff to work with and to care for members of the newest generation, which has the least in common with any previous generation before it, may be, to put it lightly, a challenge. As we navigate new waters in health care, a comprehensive work experience for newly licensed RNs, MDs and APPs, is what’s called for, as well as a network of peers across the country to collaborate on onboarding and ensuring successful transition of clinicians into new professional roles. We face a great challenge as we determine what health care will look like during and after COVID-19, but we have a great opportunity to benefit from the strengths that each generation offers while bringing new clinicians and colleagues into our teams.

About the author. With a background in nursing and health administration, Katie Davis tracks health care industry data, strategic trends, member needs and leads the development of curriculum for Clinical Workforce Solution products at Vizient.

Published: July 27, 2020