DeKALB – Fielding job stress and pandemic burnout, some nurses like Taylor Zarris have turned to traveling positions to keep the love for the job alive, for a bump in pay and added flexibility in the workplace.
Originally from the Midwest, Zarris recently purchased a home in Sycamore with her husband and started her post as a travel nurse in November after working eight years in the industry. She moved from Portland, Oregon, and is posted at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital.
Zarris said she didn’t have a lot of time to research exactly where she wanted to work or what she wanted to do before returning to the Midwest.
“I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with my nursing career at that point,” Zarris said. “So it offered me the flexibility to maybe try different facilities, maybe different avenues of nursing where I didn’t have to make the full commitment to one facility.”
Travel nurses Alexandra Pop (left) and Taylor Zarris look over some paperwork Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb. (Mark Busch – [email protected]/Mark Busch – [email protected])
Like the rest of the health care field over the past two years, Zarris said the COVID-19 pandemic left her feeling burnt out.
“At some point in your nursing career, you’re going to face burnout and you’re going to be wanting time away,” Zarris said. “And travel nursing allows you to take longer periods, longer breaks, than traditional nursing, where you can get that recovery time for yourself and you can feel refreshed in your career and you can feel re-motivated in your field.”
Travel nursing is a phenomenon that’s grown in popularity over the COVID-19 pandemic era. The positions often provide nurses with greater pay than a traditional spot, with the tradeoff of a more nomadic lifestyle. For some, including Zarris, a lucky drawing might mean a more local posting, such as a nearby county or right in the neighborhood due to local staffing needs.
Corinne Haviley, chief nursing executive for Northwestern Medicine, said the main difference between traditional nurses and traveling nurses is that the latter are expected to immediately pick up new procedures and work cultures. She said there are different types of traveling nurses – such as cardiac, medical and surgical, and pediatric, to name a few – that could be used by hospitals at any given time.
“It really depends upon the individual hospital need,” Haviley said. “But I would say that we’ve had probably a spread throughout the majority of our areas where we’ve had needs.”
Travel perks balance work burdens
Alexandra Pop became a traveling nurse in October and splits her time at home in Palatine and a nearby hotel close to Kishwaukee Hospital. This is her first traveling nurse position. She got her start in the industry at a unique time, during the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“It was tough,” Pop said. “I valued my first job that I had, and they treated me very well, and I realized really quickly how much nurses do. And I feel like travel nursing is that way to really get the value out of what nursing really encompasses due to what we go through.”
Pop said the pandemic put renewed strain on nurses. She also struggled during her previous job when her 401(k) retirement fund contributions were paused because of the pandemic. Travel nursing appealed to her that much more.
“Yet we are still doing more work for less pay and less appreciation,” Pop said. “And I feel like travel nursing kind of cut all of that out and just allowed so much flexibility and that refresh, where we can just kind of get away, be with our families for a couple of weeks and kind of refresh so that we can give the best care to patients and grow as nurses.”
Another perk? Better pay amid an adaptable lifestyle.
“There is a difference in salary,” Haviley said. “And I think that the differential on the salary is partly because of the adaptability of being able to make a change and work in different organizations, pick up and move to a different part of the country or a different city.”
Although it wasn’t the main reason why Zarris turned to travel nursing, she said she does earn more money as a travel nurse than when she was in a traditional role.
“You are able to take that time off that a lot of [traditional] nurses need but you can’t necessarily get,” Zarris said. “Because you have to fight for vacation time and you might be at the bottom of a tier to get the vacation that you want and you’re not gonna be able to take as much time off.”
Like Zarris, Pop said pay wasn’t her main motivator to switch roles as much as the appeal of a flexible schedule, which offered her a chance to pick the length of her contracts and take weeks off between posts.
“However, I mean, it is a nice perk,” Pop said with a chuckle, referring to pay, which she said is typically three to four times what traditional nurses earn per hour.
“As travel nurses, we can afford to take those three, four weeks off in between contracts and then kind of hustle and grind in those 13 weeks or however long your contract is,” Pop said.
It’s not all pros, however. Zarris said some travel postings aren’t always guaranteed, or could be cut at any time. And pay is based on a hospital or facility’s patient census, which can fluctuate regularly.
“So it’s seasonal,” Zarris said. “In the fall, we’re going to have increasing numbers of the flu. And then, in this case, we had increasing numbers of [COVID-19]. The baby boomer generation is getting sicker, so those numbers can fluctuate as well.”
Travel lifestyles can also take a toll on colleague relationships, making it harder to build longterm community, Haviley said.
“We have peers and relationships and colleagues, friendships that we develop when we work for an organization,” Haviley said. “And you’ll often hear when people leave an organization, ‘What was the most difficult thing to leave?’ And it’s not the bricks and mortar, but it truly is the people.”
Zarris said she thinks there will always be a need for both traditional and travel nurses. She likened traditional nurses to the backbone of health care facilities and travel nurses instrumental in filling gaps in times of need.
“Maternity leave is another reason why sometimes they have agencies come in,” Zarris said. “Here at Kish, a lot of nurses I work with are moms. Where I was before, in downtown Portland, almost nobody was expecting. So here, there’s a greater need for a short amount of time just to fill in those positions. They don’t really necessarily want more full time staff. They just want enough staff when those full time nurses are gone.”
Both nurses spoke highly of their Kishwaukee Hospital postings, where they said their input feels valued among the permanent hospital staff.
“I have other friends that are travel nursing and they can’t necessarily say the same thing,” Pop said. “And they’re kind of looked at differently because I mean, there is that stigma, ‘Oh, you guys get paid more. You guys should be more stressed. You guys can fend for yourselves because you get paid more.’ … That’s not the case here.”
Pop and Zarris said their Kishwaukee Hospital contracts were their first as traveling nurses, and they’ve jumped at the opportunity to extend them when offered.
“I’ve kind of struck gold with my first travel contract,” Pop said.