When You’re Burned Out at Your Job, But It’s Also Your Calling

Erine Cressell worked as a hospital nurse for 15 years, dreaming of completing a graduate degree and treating drug addiction patients in her corner of the Appalachians. It was before the pandemic.

As of 2020, she spent most of her days going to her hospital emergency room, looking after people who would have been admitted to the upper floors, if only there were enough staff to take care of them. them. After her 12-hour shifts, she would sometimes sit on a sidewalk in the hospital parking lot and cry. Then she would drive 45 minutes to her home in Glen Lyn, Virginia, and do her second job, which was supposed to be her only job, compiling data for the hospital’s quality department. Get some sleep and repeat.

“It’s just like there’s no more life in you when you walk into the building,” the 38-year-old said of the hospital.

When the opportunity to work remotely as a senior project manager arose last summer, she jumped on it. She now works for Registry Partners, a healthcare consulting firm.

“Throwing it all out, that’s kind of what it felt like,” Cressell says of her discharge from nursing at the hospital. “But every time I think about it, nothing could outweigh the benefits of my leaving.”

Exhausted by long hours and staff shortages, traumatized by the scale of deaths caused by waves of Covid-19, many nurses are rethinking their careers. A 2021 survey of 6,568 nurses by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that two-thirds said the coronavirus pandemic prompted them to consider leaving the profession.

A sign celebrating nursing is on display inside the Leal family home, where husband and wife are nurses.

Their feelings and desires in many ways mirror those of millions of Americans who have quit their jobs in recent months, hungry for more autonomy and time with their families, a respite from the stress of the past two years.

Yet the choice may seem more important when you’ve dedicated your life to caring for others. Over the past few months, as I wrote about burnout, I have heard overwhelmed teachers and social workers say that they too are struggling with toxic bosses and unsustainable workloads, but struggling with guilt for abandoning the people they are committed to helping.

The question they are faced with: how do you leave a job that looks like a vocation?

“When you really feel called to your profession, it becomes closely linked to who you are,” says Delaney Barsamian, a 31-year-old woman in the Bay Area who left her post as an emergency room nurse last year to remote work helping patients to end life projects. “It was almost like a breakup. I was in love with emergency medicine.

Yet barely able to get out of bed on some days, she needed a change.

Patrick Leal says he now has time to talk to students and educate parents about the safety of Covid-19.

Turnover and burnout in health care can be problems with life or death implications. Heavy workloads for nurses can lead to errors and interruptions in care. When a busy hospital has to divert ambulances elsewhere – as many have had to do in recent months – “a patient can die on the way,” says Gretchen Berlin, senior partner at McKinsey & Co’s healthcare practice.

The share of nurses who said they were likely to quit in the coming year rose to 32% in a survey conducted in November and December for an upcoming McKinsey report, from 22% last February.

As things may get worse as the growing number of Covid-19 cases puts pressure on hospitals and health workers, Ms Berlin says that the loyalty and frayed burnout of some nurses also relates to the ripple effects of the pandemic: patients with all kinds of illnesses after ignoring medical care, betrayal many staff members felt without adequate protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic or facing holidays and layoffs.


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There has been a silent mantra of “We are not indispensable” swirling through the nursing community, says Berlin, as many nurses are paid higher wages and consider walking.

Hospitals have tried to offer bonuses to new hires and bring in itinerant nurses who work on a contract basis, earning high hourly rates. Yet these practices are not sustainable for businesses, says Berlin. And the experienced nurses find themselves forming a rotating group of newcomers who earn three to five times as much as they do, says Theresa Brown, a former oncology nurse and author of books on the profession.

“The nurses are so angry,” she said. “I see and hear this incredible feeling of unease and hopelessness.”

The feeling that drives a lot to leave is that of not being able to do the job they signed up for, of not being able to treat patients the way they think they are. The technical term is “moral distress”.

“You find yourself in a situation where what you are asked to challenge your sense of values ​​and ethics,” says Dr. Brown. “It’s like a gnaw creeping into your moral conscience.”

Over 25 years of nursing, Patrick Leal was trained to focus deeply on each patient, doing everything he could to heal them.

“The problem with Covid is that it looks more like an army triage,” says Leal, who was working as a trauma nurse in a Texas emergency room when the pandemic hit. Patients were everywhere. The staff were resigning. He felt like his job was to get people in and out as fast as he could.

“It’s not breastfeeding. It’s… I might as well work in an auto factory making gadgets, ”he says. He went numb. “When you stop worrying or worrying or stop focusing on trying to help people, that’s when you realize that maybe it isn’t. the job for you. “

The 50-year-old left in February and took almost eight months off. He spent time with his children, ages 6 and 8, and lost 80 pounds after giving up his fast food after the night shift to cook at home.

In October, he started a new job as a nurse at a high school in Pearland, Texas, where he deals with everything from an upset stomach to finger injuries. He has time to talk to students about their personal struggles and educate parents about the safety of Covid-19. He leaves every day at 3 p.m. and picks up his children, taking them to soccer training or for a bike ride.

Patrick Leal says his new job as a school nurse allows him to pick up his children in the afternoon.

He earns around 40% of his old six-figure salary. The same goes for his wife, a nurse who recently moved to a school. They are okay with it.

“Our happiness is worth more,” says Leal.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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