Staff nurses are exhausted and are trading stability for the flexibility and pay of traveling nurses.
Many enjoy the benefits of traveling nursing and feel they have more control over their mental health.
But there are challenges, including finding affordable housing and navigating unfamiliar hospitals.
“It hasn’t gotten better,” said Dr. Sun Jones, Doctor of Nursing Practice, board-certified family nurse practitioner and associate professor at the University of Phoenix College of Nursing. “The shortage of nurses continues.”
According to Jones, traveling nurses were meant to be a temporary solution to the nursing shortage in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the shortage of full-time resident nurses remained a problem – and a problem that only increase over time.
The pandemic has amplified the need for more healthcare workers. Traveling nurses have been in high demand since the start of 2020 due to a few factors. Some nurses have fallen ill while supporting COVID patients and needed coverage as a result, others have experienced burnout and required time off, and there has been a growing need for comprehensive coverage as patients face COVID-related illnesses and health complications.
Jones expanded on the intensity of the nursing shortage, saying hospitals are “trying all different ways to increase the number of nurses, but the demand is getting higher and higher.”
There are simply not enough nurses in health facilities to meet the current demand. Staff nurses worked overtime, leading to an epidemic of burnout. They are physically, mentally and emotionally drained, and traveling nurses help hospitals meet patient needs while giving staff nurses well-deserved breaks.
Why Nurses Leave Staff Jobs to Become Traveling Nurses
Hannah Stone left her nursing job five years ago to become a traveling nurse and explore other parts of the country while researching where she might want to settle.
“I experienced a lot of burnout in my job before I was a traveling nurse. The desire for something new was definitely needed back then,” Stone said. “I really enjoyed the lifestyle and the freedom it allowed me to experience.”
Additionally, traveling nurses earn about 50% more money, on average, due to high demand. According to Indeed, the average weekly salary for a travel nurse is around $2,425, compared to the average weekly salary for a personal care nurse of around $1,600.
Stone isn’t the only nurse to make the change recently. Julie Mikus, another traveling nurse, shared similar thoughts. Mikus said she “started suffering from burnout at my last job” before she started traveling.
Mikus went on to explain that despite the support given by her hospital administration to the staff, the emotional toll she suffered from the immense loss of patients was too great to stay. She needed a change.
The benefits of going on the road
According to Jones, traveling nurses have a little more control over their schedules, which allows them to rest between assignments and take more vacations, which, in turn, helps them maintain their mental health.
“The benefit of traveling nursing is being able to take the time needed between assignments to recharge myself so that I can be my best for myself, my family and my patients,” said Beth Hawkes, a registered nurse.
Ivette Palomeque, who was a critical care nurse for 11 years, shared that the degree of control and agency travel nurses have is another big reason she got into travel nursing.
“As a travel nurse, I can choose where I go and generally the shifts. It allows me to move around the country and experience different settings, while still doing what I love, that is, being a critical care nurse,” she says.
There are a few challenges, but for the most part the pros outweigh the cons
Traveling nurses may have a higher salary, but hospitals often give them more responsibility and tougher cases as a result – they may also have higher housing costs because they travel so frequently.
“It’s unethical, but we all know it happens: Travelers get paid more. Traveling nurses always see the toughest patients, no matter how acute, how aggressive the members family or the patient’s lack of respect for the medical team,” Hawkes said.
Other traveling nurses spoke to Insider about the challenges they regularly face when it comes to learning about new hospitals and policies. They take care of everything from learning the location of supplies and determining the chain of command to navigating the different expectations; many daily variables change and caregiver nurses often have a bit more stability.
It’s something Stone learned to deal with during her journey as a traveling nurse. “The biggest challenge on a trip is seeing how different hospitals work and how they handle a patient’s treatment,” she said. “You have to be really strong in your skills and your field to best advocate for your patients. Always stay up to date on best practices to achieve the best patient outcomes.”
Figuring out where you’re going to live can be another struggle. Some traveling nurses will work with agencies that provide housing, but others must find their own affordable housing. With inflation and the housing crisis affecting nearly every region of the country, finding affordable housing in safe areas can be difficult, especially for temporary workers.
Beyond the housing shortage, there is the added stress of having to be away for weeks – and sometimes months – from friends and family for work.
“I caught COVID in January while on assignment in Maryland, 1,500 miles from my home base in Houston. I was quarantined in a hotel room for 10 days, and it was awful,” Palomeque said. “The support system you normally have now becomes distant, and if you find yourself struggling with a decline in your mental health, it can be difficult to get the help you need at the time.”
But even with these challenges, many are finding that the relief from the burnout they experienced as caregiver nurses outweighs the inconvenience and, at least for now, they are not looking back.
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