Many travel nurses choose temporary assignments because of the autonomy and opportunity—not just the big pay raise

Two travel nurses talk on FaceTime with their 4-year-old son as they work away from home at a field hospital set to handle a surge in COVID-19 patients in 2021. AP Photo/David Goldman

by Ivan Gan, University of Houston-Downtown

Travel nurses take on short-term contracts that may require long trips or temporary stay away from home. From time to time, they have to get used to new co-workers, new protocols and new workplaces.

So why would staff nurses quit their steady jobs to become travel nurses?

Well, for one, they get bigger salaries. But American nurses have reasons other than making more money, according to a study I conducted.

To do this research, I interviewed 27 registered nurses in different countries.

Many of the people I interviewed found that they left permanent positions to combat burnout. Although they welcomed the pay rise, travel nursing also gave them the autonomy to decide when and where to work. This autonomy allowed them to pursue personal and professional interests that were meaningful to them, and made some of the other hassles, such as long commutes, worthwhile.

In addition to making more money, travel nursing “gives you an opportunity to explore different areas,” said a nurse I’ll call Cynthia because research rules require anonymity. “When you live there for three months, it gives you a chance to really immerse yourself in the area and really get to know not just the touristy stuff, but really hang out with the locals and really get exposure to the area.”

Other study participants said they enjoyed the novelty and educational opportunities.

“You don’t get bored or stuck in a routine,” Michelle said. “You’re always trying to learn new policies at the new hospital you’re at, learning about new doctors, nursing staff, new ways of doing things, where things are. It helps me not burn out so quickly.”

Patricia said: “I want to see how other operating rooms around the country do things and how they do things differently. I learn a lot from one place to another.”

The man in scrubs looks out the window with a twinkle in his eye.
Travel nurses move around a lot, but they also find advantages in this mobility.
Elaine Cromie/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Why does it matter?

A growing number of American nurses were taking temporary assignments before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

But travel nursing became much more prevalent in 2020, when hospitals were struggling to keep their staffing levels high enough as millions of Americans contracted the coronavirus, straining capacity in many communities.

While compensation varies widely, the median salary for registered nurses in 2022 was $81,220, about 35% less than the $110,000 that traveling registered nurses earned.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel nurses can earn an even bigger prize. Many were paid twice as much as staff nurses.

As the number of Americans with severe symptoms fell, so did that premium. But there are still more than 1.7 million travel nurses in the U.S. Hiring them is one of the main ways hospitals are dealing with the long-term nursing shortage.

But nurses with permanent jobs may be burdened by this arrangement when they learn how much more travel nurses earn for doing the same work, as I discovered through another research project.

What other research is being done

The research supports a widely reported trend: more Americans have temporary jobs and self-employment than in the past.

While travel nurses can help hospitals, nursing homes and doctors’ offices meet staffing needs, there are signs that patients aren’t always doing so well with their care.

And a Canadian study found that when hospitals allow staff nurses to work part-time and offer other alternative arrangements, their retention rates can increase.

Research Summary is a short summary about interesting academic work.Conversation

Ivan Gan, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Houston-Downtown

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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