Given the seismic changes in the healthcare industry brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that nurses reported unprecedented levels of burnout in a recent career satisfaction survey conducted by CHG Healthcare. It’s not all bad news, however. Amid the upheaval, some nurses found new opportunities — or simply the motivation to make long-desired changes.
Nurse burnout was a growing problem long before COVID-19, but it’s undeniable that the stresses of the pandemic made things much worse for many healthcare providers. In the survey, 64% of providers overall reported that COVID-19 negatively impacted their experience of burnout. That figure is even higher for frontline nurses—77% of them reported negative impacts to burnout. A staggering 83% of nurses working in emergency medicine reported the same.
“I really have no words for it,” ICU nurse Starla Fincher said of her experience treating COVID patients in an early-pandemic interview. “I have been doing this for a long time and I cry every day on the way home.”
ICU nurses are not unused to seeing patients die. But for Fincher, the circumstances around COVID-19 deaths were hard to cope with. “There is literally nothing we can do for these patients. It is so sad because as they are dying, their families cannot be there. They are literally on the phone screaming to their loved one ‘We love you; we love you. You have been the best daddy ever!’ That is horrifying to witness.”
The stress and uncertainty surrounding healthcare organizations’ response to the pandemic has, in some cases, contributed to burnout. A chaotic, ineffective response made the job harder — and, honestly, more frightening — for those working on the frontlines. Emergency medicine nurses were split in the survey, with 50% satisfied with their employer’s response and 50% dissatisfied.
ER nurse Becky Faulkner was working a locum tenens assignment during the initial phase of the pandemic. She says the organization was evaluating new information and issuing new policies nearly every day. “Now you have to wear your mask from the time you hit the floor to the time you leave. Next, we had to wear goggles, then head wraps when we found out it could be transmitted with hair. Regular housekeeping protocols were changed,” she said. “Every night it was something different.”
Despite that evolving guidance, Faulkner credited the organization for its overall response. “The hospital I worked at was absolutely amazing — they really take care of their people! The cafeteria staff came in every night and cooked for us for free,” she said. “They really take care of their staff. I wish all hospitals were like that.”
Of course, an organization’s effectiveness in responding to the pandemic could be severely impacted by staffing levels — and a full 78% of emergency medicine nurses felt their facility had inadequate staffing levels during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic had some unpredictable effects on the careers of nurses. Some found themselves putting in longer hours, while others were reassigned, furloughed, or lost travel assignments. Overall, 74% of nurses felt the pandemic had impacted their compensation in some way, while 66% of nurses believed it had affected their job stability.
While the ICU filled with critical patients, other areas saw their patient census dry up. Faulkner was released three weeks early from a travel assignment because the “little stuff that usually takes up your time” in the ER just wasn’t there anymore, she said, as people began to avoid seeking care. “They were sending a lot of people home. Of course, travelers do not get sent home, so they ended up canceling the travelers.”
Joey and Brent Butts, brothers who are both nurses, had their hours and assignments changed. Brent Butts was moved from orthopedic surgery to med surge, where he had previous experience. Then “the OR switched us to seven-on-seven off, and then we didn’t have any vacation time, and then I went from days in the OR to nights with no notice. It was really tough.”
A turn to travel nursing
The reassignments and schedule changes led Joey and Brent Butts to reconsider their options. The brothers decided to give travel nursing a try and embarked together on a 2,500-mile road trip from Alabama to Washington.
The duo has thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. “I was pretty hesitant,” says Joey Butts about travel nursing. “I wish I would have done it a lot sooner. It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I think every nurse should do it at some point.”
“The pay was a big benefit too because the contracts have gone up, so it made it a lot easier to say it was financially worth it for us,” adds Brent Butts.
Similarly, the upheaval of the pandemic was just the push that Jovita Santoyo needed to try travel nursing. “Anywhere you worked you would see travelers, and we started noticing as staff that we were overexposed and underpaid. We would see travelers come in making double, sometimes triple what we were making, and we’re doing the same job, being just as exposed,” she says.
“I was in Miami for the first wave. We learned to be a little more fearless — but then I told myself that there’s other places that are severely short staffed,” she says. So she jumped on the opportunity to experience an adventure, earn more, and help another “overburdened and overworked” unit. “I know that I’m a little bit more appreciated because they need us as travelers.”