“I joked when I worked there that it was a lot like nursing, only it was just animals instead, care-providing and feeding and safety and medicines and death and injuries and poop, and it was it was all very similar, but it was animals, and it was a very rewarding two years there,” she said.
Leibov and Farmer Frog parted ways in May, but the experience impressed upon her a sense of clarity about the kind of work she wanted to do. “What’s happened in the last three years has been a desire not to return to nursing, because of hindsight: I feel like I did more for people as far as healing, and as far as care, as a massage therapist and as someone who planted and reaped food at a farm, than I ever did as a nurse,” she said.
If the pandemic hadn’t happened, Leibov thinks she may have switched to part-time clinic nursing, and she has not let her nursing license lapse; but these days, she’d rather be digging in the dirt or using massage therapy to help patients through their pregnancies than managing the aspects of a previous work life she found so unsustainable.
“I just found this part of me that really is in tune with wanting to prevent problems rather than react to them,” she said. “And so you add in a broken health care system that existed before the pandemic — the cracks have been exposed, but they were there before — and there’s this thing people say: ‘Well, there’s not actually a nursing shortage. There’s plenty of nurses. They just don’t want to work.’ And I’m one of them.”
She’s now in the process of returning to massage therapy. “It’s an undervalued, underused, underpaid career,” she said. “And I love it.”
‘This is where I am’
Former RNs like Leibov, Hines and McCallon are clear about their reasons for leaving the bedside — and the potential benefits of building a new life outside of health care. They loved being nurses, and they were good at their jobs, but the work demands coupled with a lack of support became too much. Eventually, the risk of pivoting to something new became a safer choice than staying put.
But the privilege of pivoting to a new career isn’t available to everyone in the industry experiencing burnout. Nurses often stay because the challenges and risks of leaving are outweighed by the need for relative stability.
For inpatient oncology nurse Marc Pechera, one motivating factor is “simply seniority.” If he were to leave the hospital where he’s worked for 15 years, he would lose his seniority, which impacts his ability to take time off. His current schedule jells with his family’s, and while he’s looked into other opportunities, he found the benefits offered were inadequate.
Working in an oncology unit that did not accept COVID patients also spared him some of the turmoil other nurses faced during the pandemic. “For some nurses, they’re down to a routine, especially when you’ve been in a certain place for so long,” he said. “Why break it? But unfortunately for a lot of ICU and ER nurses, their routine was broken when COVID came around.”
While shielded from some complications caused by the pandemic, Pechera’s unit has been impacted by inadequate staffing, with more turnover than he ever remembers seeing in his time there, and by the constant pressure to do more with less. His hospital has a designated break nurse on each floor to ensure that nurses can take breaks, but the role wasn’t created until after Pechera’s union sued after finding out nurses weren’t getting breaks. Before the policy went into effect, nurses would sometimes work entire 12-hour shifts without sitting down. “We’re lucky on days when we’re fully staffed,” he said.
Staying in bedside nursing as long as he has wasn’t Pechera’s dream. He has a degree in sociology and gender studies, and originally planned to pursue a Ph.D. Choosing nursing instead, he said, was motivated by “family pressure, and you’ll see that in a lot of younger Filipino nurses because that’s what you do.”