“It hasn’t gotten better,” Dr. Sun Jones, a doctor of nursing practice, a board-certified family nurse practitioner, and an associate professor with the University of Phoenix College of Nursing, said. “The nursing shortage is still continuing.”
According to Jones, traveling nurses were supposed to be a temporary solution to the nursing shortage in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the scarcity of full-time resident nurses has remained an issue — and one that’s only grown over time.
The pandemic has amplified the need for more healthcare workers. Traveling nurses have been in high demand since the beginning of 2020 due to a few factors. Some nurses have fallen ill while supporting COVID patients and have needed coverage as a result, others have experienced burnout and needed time off, and there has been an increasing need of overall coverage as patients deal with illnesses and health complications from COVID.
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 simply aren’t enough nurses at healthcare facilities to meet current demands. Staff nurses have been working overtime, which has led to a burnout epidemic. They are exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, and travel nurses are helping hospitals keep up with patient needs while giving staff nurses much-needed breaks.
Hannah Stone left her staff-nursing job five years ago to become a travel nurse and explore other areas around the country while figuring out where she might want to settle down.
“I experienced a lot of burnout in my staff job before travel nursing. The desire for something new was definitely needed at the time,” Stone said. “I’ve really enjoyed the lifestyle and freedom it has allowed for me to live.”
Additionally, traveling nurses make about 50% more money, on average, due to the high demand. According to Indeed, an average weekly salary for a travel nurse is around $2,425, compared to a staff nurse’s average weekly salary of about $1,600.
Stone isn’t the only nurse who has recently made this switch. Julie Mikus, another traveling nurse, shared similar thoughts. Mikus said she “started experiencing burnout at my last job” before she began traveling.
Mikus went on to explain that despite her hospital administration providing support to staff, the emotional toll she experienced from the immense loss of patients was too significant to stay. She needed a change.
According to Jones, traveling nurses have a little more control over their schedules, allowing them to rest between assignments and take more vacations, which, in turn, helps them maintain their mental health.
“The benefit to travel nursing is being able to take the necessary time off between assignments to recharge so that I can be my best for myself, my family, and my patients,” Beth Hawkes, a registered nurse, said.
Ivette Palomeque, who has been an ICU nurse for 11 years, shared that the amount of control and agency travel nurses have over their time is another big reason why she went into travel nursing.
“As a travel nurse, I get to choose where I go and, usually, the shifts I work. It allows me to move about the country and experience different settings, all while still doing what I love, which is being an ICU nurse,” she said.
Traveling nurses may have increased pay, but hospitals often hand them more responsibility and harder cases as a result — they can also have higher housing costs from moving around so frequently.
“It is unethical, but we all know it occurs: Travelers are paid more. Travel nurses always get the most difficult patients, regardless of the degree of acuity, the aggression of the family members, 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 new hospitals and policies. They deal with everything from learning where supplies are and figuring out the chain of command to navigating different expectations; many day-to-day variables change, and staff nurses often have a bit more stability.
This is something Stone has learned to deal with on her travel-nursing journey. “The biggest challenge while traveling is seeing how different hospitals operate and how they manage 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 for the best patient outcome.”
Figuring out where you’re going to live can be another struggle. Some traveling nurses will work with agencies that provide housing, but others are required to find their own affordable-living accommodations. With inflation and the housing crisis touching almost every part of the nation, affordable housing in safe areas — especially for temporary workers — can be difficult to find.
Beyond housing scarcity, there’s the added stress of having to go weeks — and sometimes months — away from friends and family to work.
“I caught COVID this January while on assignment in Maryland, 1,500 miles away 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 remote, and if you find yourself battling with a decline in your mental health, it may be hard to get the help you need at the time.”
But even with these challenges, many are finding that the relief from burnout they experienced as staff nurses outweighs the cons, and — at least for now — they aren’t looking back.