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Why leadership turnover in senior living is so high

Let’s pretend that you’re shopping for a senior living option for yourself or for a loved one. One of the things you might hear about in your search is the high turnover and burnout rate of not only the floor team (dining servers, dish washers, housekeepers, care staff, med techs, maintenance technicians, activities assistants) but also the directors from the top down.

Buildings have a harder and harder time keeping good directors because the culture is very demanding and the work isn’t easy. A phrase you hear a lot in the business is, “it’s like a revolving door”, And “they just hop around.” I’ve personally been asked, “So, where are you now?” It’s not a surprise. I want you to understand why this is happening.

Senior living never closes, their customers are residents and they never leave. There are no holidays or weekends or snow/disaster days. Yes, of course the companies give their employees overtime and holiday pay as well as paid days off and benefits. I’m not saying they don’t do anything for their boots on the ground workers, but my opinion is that it’s really not enough for the sacrifices they have to make, which is why there is a problem across the board. 

Senior living companies are backed by big money, whether it’s private investors or publicly traded. At the end of the day, the investors are going to get their money, and sometimes that will happen on the backs of the hard working people in the buildings. This might cut the budgets of the buildings which leaves the directors in a difficult position of where to find money to do basic things like staff properly for a 24-hour business. I literally had an executive director tell me he was going to rob Peter to pay Paul at one point when it came to how to manipulate the budget. This isn’t just one company, it’s most of them.

The post-COVID occupancy crisis has taken nearly four years to recover from, and whether the building is at 45% or 100% occupancy, the companies still need to pay their directors, their staff and keep the utilities on, so some buildings are below budget month after month. 

Prices are finally back to almost “normal” after several industry price increases, but to the residents and those seeking senior living options, the price increases may seem astronomical. Keep in mind that most companies didn’t increase prices for at least a year or more, and many dropped prices during the pandemic. If you consider how much more it costs to run, the prices are usually pretty fair and competitive. Also, everything costs more now than it did four years ago, due to inflation and the need to pay staff fair wages in order to retain them. Non-skilled labor pay in buildings is still generally on the low side compared to retail jobs and it’s way more labor intensive, it’s no wonder buildings can’t seem to stay staffed.

While you may think that not-for-profit senior living buildings might be the answer (which they do have their merits), there are still very well paid executives at the top of those companies and they still have building budgets and need to figure out where the money is going to come from.

It’s the American corporate culture to keep the top happy and rob the bottom to make it work, so I don’t understand why people are so surprised about this phenomenon in senior living. I know it’s not as simple as robbing Peter to pay Paul, and there are very delicate balances that these companies are trying to manage. This is why line staff as well as directors don’t always stick around. Just because a building is brand new and clean and has a nice chandelier, you may want to see if you can observe the company culture in the building when you’re shopping so that you aren’t surprised by director turnover if it comes. Companies with better corporate cultures tend to keep their directors. If you ask, you will most likely be given a sales pitch anyway, so it’s not worth asking. 

My suggestion is to ask if you can come for a lunch or dinner and observe who is around when you come. Do any directors introduce themselves to you on the tour? Do the front line workers seem helpful and happy or are they stressed out?

You may be surprised to hear about director turnover in senior living communities, but my opinion is that, no matter who is running the building and how often it has changed hands, your loved one will still be served, because despite the big money, at the end of the day, if they don’t keep their customers happy, they won’t have a business.

Just like any other business, if you feel underserved, you need to speak up if something isn’t right. Keep an open mind that while the people who care for your loved one do matter, they are still human beings with their own lives and if they don’t want to stay in a job that is killing them, it’s not necessarily a reflection of the company as a whole or of you or your loved one. You will always have options available and worst case, you can move your loved one somewhere else.

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