After 13 years, former pediatric nurse Karen Tan traded her hospital scrubs for a cart laden with orange-tipped syringes.
It’s one of the workstations at the spa she now manages in Surrey, about 33 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, in a new career that involves injecting clients with Botox, treating hair loss and melting fat cells.
Three years ago, Tan, 42, left the Vancouver hospital she worked at, burned out from years of demanding 12-hour shifts.
“I felt very overwhelmed, very exhausted,” she said. “Where I just thought … I can’t keep doing this forever.”
Data shows nursing jobs like the one Tan left sit empty across the country.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of unfilled jobs for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses increased from about 8,900 in 2018 to just over 28,300 in the same quarter of 2023. Large increases are noticeable during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health experts say many different factors could explain the vacancies, from burnout and early retirement, to the increase in job postings to meet the health-care industry’s demands.
“This is a multi-factored issue and is in line with trends world-wide as countries grapple with rising complexity of care, an aging population and workforce, new modalities of care and work-life balance, and increasing competition from international jurisdictions and the private sector, among other issues,” the B.C. Ministry of Health said in a statement.
Some nurses say they were passionate about their careers but long hours left little time for family, while others say pandemic pressures made them reconsider their priorities.
CBC News interviewed three former public health-care nurses who forged new careers in medical aesthetics and cosmetics.
In their private practices, they say the pace is slower and they no longer have to deal with tough, emotional life-and-death issues.
Ultimately, they say, they’re happier.
A slower pace, regular sleep
At Soma MD Advanced Medical Aesthetics, the injections Tan administers to help patients feel and look youthful are a world away from the chemotherapy intravenous lines she administered at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Tan says she was passionate about helping kids but by the time she got home to her now-10-year-old daughter, she felt “really emotionally drained.”
Now, with a mostly 9-to-5 schedule and a shorter commute, Tan says she’s prioritizing her well-being with a regular sleep schedule and consistent gym routine.
She says she also enjoys having more time to consult with patients.
While the stakes may be lower in a medical aesthetics clinic than in a public hospital, her job still requires a high level of skill, she says.
“[Clients] they’re paying a lot of money; it’s not something that I take lightly at all.”
‘I’m able to be the mom that I want to be’
For nine years, Emily Miller was a psychiatric nurse in Burnaby Hospital’s emergency department, where part of her job involved assessing patients who had thoughts of self-harm and suicide. The 40-year-old described her career as a privilege.
But even as a casual nurse who picked her hours, she worried the long shifts — typically 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or vice versa — would become harder to juggle after having her second child. Her husband, also a physician, made child care difficult to schedule.
Two years ago, she opened her own aesthetics clinic in West Vancouver, where she now serves 400 clients with services such as Botox, dermal fillers and treatment for acne scars.
The change wasn’t easy — she worked about six days a week for a year to launch the clinic, she says.
But the efforts are paying off. Today, she takes her kids to school and picks them up and also volunteers at her daughter’s school.
“I’m able to be the mom that I want to be.”
Work-life balance is important: nurses’ union
The B.C. Nurses’ Union says it understands why some nurses are leaving hospitals.
“Either they’re burnt out, they have PTSD, or they have left the profession … so that they can look after themselves,” said union president Aman Grewal.
By 2031, 27,000 new nursing positions will be needed in the province, Grewal says.
In an emailed statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Health says efforts to recruit nurses include adding 602 more nursing program seats across 17 public post-secondary institutions to the estimated 2,000 currently available.
It’s also creating ways for internationally trained health-care workers to practise more easily in B.C.
The province says it’s also working with the BCNU to introduce a new nurse-to-patient care model, where a minimum number of nurses per patient is required, allowing for better, more person-focused services such as in the ICU or in long-term care.
“Our nurses … want to feel valued and respected,” Grewal said.
“Part of that respect is being able to have a work-life balance.”
Rita Jun says supervising discharges at Vancouver General Hospital, a role she held for two years, was fulfilling — but the stress of problem-solving amid patient bed shortages, having no accessible child care, and long work hours reached a breaking point.
“I felt like I was just working all the time … like I was fulfilling my bare minimum job requirement,” she said.
During the pandemic, Jun’s team also dealt with “really sad cases” such as couples dying together in the ICU, she says.
It added up.
“I think a lot of people just started re-evaluating what they wanted in life.”
In 2022, after 13 years in public health care, Jun opened Jun Studios in Vancouver with her three sisters, offering services they share a passion for — such as hairstyling, makeup and facials.
A logo with their last name stands tall in studio.
Jun says she has a flexible schedule for her children and enjoys being home by 4 p.m. on most days.
“I feel happy,” she said.
“I have no regrets.”