Lots of us have side-hustles, a job or passion project that we do in addition to working a day job. Nurses have long led productive, meaningful lives outside of the hospital. Some do volunteer work while others run small businesses. But the COVID-19 has put a new emphasis on the side-gig economy. More nurses now see these passion projects as a possible alternative to nursing.
Katie Boston-Leary, PhD, RN says lots of nurses start looking for a way out because they are tired of the 12-hour work schedule.
“Because of the way their [schedules] are set up, they have always felt compelled to do something else,” she said. Leary is the director of nursing programs at the American Nurses Association and former chief nursing officer at the University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center in Cheverly. She would regularly check in with the nurses before the pandemic.
“That’s when I started to hear from almost everyone that they had other things that they do outside of work,” she said. Some of the nurses did side-gigs like volunteering at the local women’s shelter or pet shelter, while others had hobbies like improv.
But Leary says the side-hustle landscape has changed post COVID-19. Nurses are flocking to side-gigs as a way of supplementing their income amid record high inflation. In some states, nurses are making the bare minimum to get by, according to the “2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey” from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for saving, and some nurses feel compelled to get a second job.
But plenty of nurses are using their side-gigs to transition out of bedside care. Some are thinking of reducing their hours at the hospital while others are trying to build up enough revenue to leave nursing altogether.
According to a survey of more than 2,500 nurses published by Trusted Health, nearly 60% of respondents reported they were actively looking for a job away from the bedside, 34% said they were looking for a job outside nursing completely, 21% had plans to do so within the next year, and 3% were planning to retire from the workforce.
Lorie Brown, RN, worked as a nurse for 12 years across Indiana and California before becoming an attorney. For the last 13 years, she has been helping nurses start their own businesses.
“With your own business, unlike nursing where patients come with the room, nurses need to market their services to get clients,” Brown said. “I say once a nurse, always a nurse. We just have a different kind of patient.”
Other nurses say unsafe patient-staff ratios convinced them to look for work outside of nursing.
Libby, who didn’t disclose her last name, is a nurse in Alabama who spent 12 years caring for open-heart surgery patients in the intensive care unit. She left her full-time job as a charge nurse at a larger hospital last fall to become a nursing instructor. She now divides her time between teaching and working one night a week at a smaller hospital.
“It’s so much less stressful,” Libby said, adding that staffing levels were the main reason for her departure.
“What really, really got me burnt out was that when it came down to canceling a surgery or not — when our hospital was full — it came down to ‘Did we have a bed to do the surgery?’ not, ‘Do we have a nurse to take care of that patient?’” she said.
As a result, patient outcomes took a turn for the worst. Libby saw increased readmission rates and higher rates of pneumonia.
“If you don’t have the time to do good nursing care, then the patients suffer,” she said.
It was difficult to leave the larger hospital because “I love what I do — I love open-heart patients,” she said. “Nurses kind of find their specialties and I feel like that’s mine and I’m not doing, which has been kind of like an identity crisis. I’m not doing what I feel like I’m really good at.”
During the pandemic, Reyna, who only gave her first name, experienced increased burnout as a nurse in Massachusetts. She says the “lack of PPE and nurse-to-patient ratios” are unsustainable for many nurses. Last March, she began Frontline Medical Group, a staffing agency, to combat workforce shortages.
“I want to offer a solution to the staffing shortage as a nurse, and from what I have gathered from my colleagues, changing the work environment gives them a break from burnout,” she said. “Picking up a shift or two in a different working facility helps them reset. Or break the monotony of work. I want to offer solutions with the help of my colleagues.”
Reyna still works full-time at her hospital as she builds her new business, but has stopped picking up overtime and plans to shift to part-time hours within a few months.
“I still truly love my job as a bedside nurse,” she said. “I have no regrets. I [would] not trade it for the world. But to stay in the field, with today’s burnout epidemic, for my well-being, working part-time [will] truly benefit me, and I’m [sure] the same goes for other nurses, too.”
Heather Walsh went through something similar when the pandemic hit. She worked as a nurse for 28 years before exploring other career opportunities.
“I was very torn when COVID-19 became our reality, as I felt compelled to return to hospital-based nursing to help in any way I could, but I also have a genetic disorder that affects my lungs and was uncertain of how I may be affected,” Walsh said. “As it became more evident that COVID-19 would continue to impact our lives in so many ways for years to come, I began to research new trends in healthcare [and the] side gig economy.”
Her search ended with her opening her own business, Ageless Aesthetics by HB Walsh, which she calls “an alternative to returning to work in a traditional healthcare setting.”
“The decision to transition out of traditional healthcare was a fairly easy one when faced with the autonomy of making my own hours, being my own boss, being able to help people feel more confident, and earning the same salary as I would as a full-time hospital-based nurse in my first year in business,” Walsh said.
She doesn’t plan to return to hospital-based nursing because she doesn’t believe working conditions will improve in the immediate future.
“Having been a part of the profession long enough to see many upheavals, shortages, changes in staffing and roles, I feel we will still need to go further into the negatives before the positive changes occur,” she said. “Many nurses my age who have been in the field over 30 years have taken this opportunity to get out, and I don’t believe they will come back under the current conditions. There are so many directions a nursing career can take that I expect this side hustle way of thinking to continue.”