Amid Healthcare’s Great Resignation, Burned Out Workers Are Pursuing Flexibility And Passion
Treating sick people isn't easy and losing them is even harder
The Great Resignation—the mass exodus of unsatisfied workers—has hit few industries harder than healthcare. According to some reports, the field has lost an estimated 20% of its workforce, including 30% of nurses.
This year alone, nearly 1.7 million people have quit their healthcare jobs—equivalent to almost 3% of the healthcare workforce each month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And a recent survey of 1,000 healthcare professionals showed that 28% had quit a job because of burnout.
These departures not only create current and fear of future staffing shortages, they raise another question: Where are all those highly skilled workers going?
Many healthcare workers who quit take other healthcare jobs, though sometimes under substantially different circumstances.
Lauren Berlin, RN, 45, has been a nurse in Wisconsin and Florida for 21 years, most recently employed as director of nursing for long-term care facilities. In that role, she says she was expected to be available at all times, every day of the year.
“My phone was never off,” she said. “I was burned out. I loved bedside nursing, but I desperately needed work-life balance.”
Berlin quit her full-time job and now takes shifts through CareRev, a staffing app which allows clinicians to sign up for shifts online based on their schedule, preferences, and availability.
This flexibility allows Berlin to focus on her other passion: coaching track and field in inner-city Milwaukee.
“If your home calendar is your priority, then you schedule your work shifts around your home calendar...You want to take a vacation? Go ahead, you don’t need to ask anyone,” Berlin said. “I work for myself, on my own terms.”
According to Will Patterson, CEO and founder of CareRev, Berlin reflects a growing trend among clinicians.
“Today’s worker expects greater flexibility. They expect to have a greater degree of freedom over when they work and for whom,” Patterson said. “Clinical professionals are no exception.”
A former trauma nurse, Patterson saw firsthand the impact of inflexible hospital scheduling, which could leave the ICU short-staffed when patient volume peaked.
“When you’re taking on responsibility for more lives than you can reasonably handle—for days at a time—you burn out quickly,” he said. “Now, after over two years of fighting the pandemic, that burnout is at an all-time high. And as the nurse shortage worsens, that burnout is only going to continue to accelerate.”
According to Patterson, many burned out clinicians haven’t lost their passion for healthcare, they just want more autonomy and work-life balance.
Lack of work-life balance caused Jill Bowen, 45, to quit her job as a director of physical therapy in the home health industry. Her productivity was measured by the number of visits completed with no credit for all the time she had to spend on phone calls, documentation, and scheduling.
“Payment, regulations, and all the red tape is the most stressful part of the job,” Bowen said. “When an agency is driven by profitability, marketing promises or non-compliant provider demands, clinicians are pressed to comply, and patient care suffers.”
Now, Bowen works as an implementation consultant with Axxess, a software company that serves home health agencies. She encourages other clinicians to recognize—and use—their transferrable skills.
“There are lots of jobs available for people with the skills developed in the healthcare field,” Bowen said. “We have skills that can be transferred to other professional areas, such as being organized, effective communicators, and a team player.”
Some burned out workers are using their transferrable skills to launch their own ventures.
Taylor Bonacolta, 28, of Fort Myers, Florida, quit her job as a registered nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit a year ago due to the stresses of the pandemic combined with having two young children. Instead of getting another job, Bonacolta launched June and Lily, a business to provide support for new mothers.
“If there are any other healthcare workers out there considering quitting, I would remind them that there are so many different ways we can help others as nurses,” Bonacolta said.
The pandemic also prompted Jackie Tassiello, 34, to rethink her career. A licensed, board-certified art therapist in New Jersey, Tassiello was employed for almost four years in the pediatric cancer department at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital. Before the pandemic, she often carried a caseload of 25 children in a day, all navigating cancer, blood disorders, or gastrointestinal diseases.
During the pandemic, Tassiello was redeployed to provide emotional support and meet basic needs for frontline medical staff working in Covid-19 units. She said she remembers seeing staff in hazmat suits responding to a patient in distress and thinking, “That could be me; that could be anyone I love.”
Those experiences caused Tassiello’s own priorities to change.
“I decided that I wanted to scale down in order to be more present. I also needed time off to recalibrate and heal,” she said.
Now running her own psychotherapy practice, Tassiello has some advice for healthcare organizations hoping to retain staff: “Hospitals need to solve issues at the core, not with gift cards and lunches,” she said. “There are systemic problems that no amount of bonuses can fix.”
Some healthcare workers are giving up clinical work altogether and turning to creative pursuits.
Cari Garcia, LCSW, 38, most recently worked as a psychiatric emergency room social worker in a large Florida hospital. She says she quit due to a toxic work environment, unsupportive administration, verbally and physically abusive patients, and pay that did not justify the level of stress she had to endure.
Garcia turned a food blog she’d run as a hobby for ten years into her primary source of income and now says she makes more money than she would as a social worker. Garcia encourages other healthcare workers considering quitting to take the leap.
“The minute you’re on the other side, you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t do it sooner,” she said. “I sleep better, I’m able to be present for my family, and my quality of life is through the roof.”
The Great Resignation isn’t just about clinicians. Christopher K. Lee, MPH, 31, had been working in healthcare management for more than a decade. Last month, he resigned from a senior manager role at UCLA Health after being required to be in the office every day since October 2021.
“I tried to make it work, but in March I decided I couldn't do it anymore,” Lee said. “Like many people, during the pandemic I reflected on my priorities, and spending 3+ hours commuting a day no longer aligned with what I envisioned for my life.”
Now, Lee says he is writing a book about professional networking and doing advocacy work in teen and young adult mental health, projects he always wanted to do “someday.”
Lee said, “In the shadow of the pandemic, I decided: If I don't do them now, what if I never get a chance?”