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A Common Solution to Burnout in Nurses Is Causing Issues for Hospitals

With nurse turnover and burnout in nurses both on the rise, travel nurses are helping fill staffing shortages in hospitals. While it’s an arguably necessary solution given the state of care, outsize travel nurse pay is creating more problems than the approach solves.

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Employee burnout is an issue that spans industries, but it’s hard to argue that anyone is feeling the effects of work-related stress more than those in healthcare. Things have gotten so bad over the past few years that about 18% of healthcare workers left their jobs between February 2020 and September 2021.

Hospital staff nurses have had a particularly rough go of it. Overworked, underresourced, and sometimes underpaid, quite a few have decided to leave hospital employment behind: In 2020, the nurse turnover rate was nearly 19%, and the cost of nurse turnover is nothing to sneeze at. Each time a hospital loses one of its bedside nurses, according to a survey of hospital leaders, it forfeits an average of $40,000 — resulting in a net loss of up to $6.5 million annually.

Some disenchanted nurses have left the industry altogether. Others have turned to cross-country travel nursing gigs, which can pay them two to four times more than they would earn as a full-time nurse due to the inflow of federal funding hospitals have received since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, this trend has set off a vicious cycle: Staff-strapped hospitals spend a fortune to bring on cross-country travel nurses, which stunts their ability to increase the pay of their full-time nurses. As a result, staff nurse turnover continues to grow. This drives down the hospital’s nurse supply and increases its demand for travel nurses. Repeat the cycle.

This fact hasn’t been lost on travel nursing agencies, either: The pay rate for travel nurses rose 67% between 2020 and 2022. Regardless of the source of this staffing shortage in hospitals, this fragmented nursing workforce is causing all sorts of problems — particularly on the patient side.

Why Travel Nurses Won’t Solve Nursing Burnout

Representing nearly one-third of all hospital staff, nurses are some of the most critical players in the healthcare system. Acute care nurses like those in the emergency department are particularly essential — not only do they triage and care for patients, but they also handle a variety of administrative and billing-related tasks.

Emergency department staffing shortages and the resulting nursing burnout have caused some unwelcome problems. When wires get crossed in a busy emergency department, for instance, patients can end up getting double-billed (which, by the way, is another reason you need to understand how to read your medical bills). Burned-out healthcare workers are also more likely to make mistakes that could compromise patient safety.

While the quality of care offered by travel nurses is high, bringing them on to fill gaps doesn’t necessarily solve this problem. Contract agencies sell hospitals on their ability to streamline recruitment and credentialing of emergency department staff. This might help alleviate staffing issues, but it has consequences.

Hospitals that augment their full-time staff with contract workers get the help they need, but it can also create tension between full-time and cross-country travel nurses. In most cases, these full-time nurses are working their tails off alongside travelers who are making significantly more money than them. While there are certainly downsides to being a travel nurse, they also tend to enjoy more flexibility and fewer workplace obligations than their full-time counterparts.

And because travel nurses are not as familiar with the inner workings of the hospitals where they fill gaps, staff nurses are also expected to share their institutional knowledge with these temporary colleagues who are earning far better pay. This kind of dynamic is a breeding ground for intra-workplace resentment.

Finding Better Solutions to Staff Shortages in Hospitals

The influx of travel nurses in hospitals has become a Band-Aid solution for larger issues within the healthcare system. It’s unsustainable for hospitals to continue to pay outsize travel nurse pay while shortchanging their full-time personnel. Instead, hospitals need to implement longer-term solutions to reduce nurse turnover.

One way hospital leadership can reduce nurse turnover is by offering a truly robust benefits package. While salary is certainly one aspect of that, health benefits are another key factor. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly half of American workers say the quality of their health coverage is an important factor in deciding whether to stay at their jobs. And by adding a benefit like Paytient to the mix, you can lower turnover by making your benefits package even stronger.

It’s perhaps the understatement of the year to say that nurses are burned out. Hospitals are losing staff nurses in droves, and they’re turning to travel nurses to plug those gaps. But this isn’t an ideal long-term solution. Instead, hospitals should focus on reinvesting in their existing staff members by offering benefits that are hard to leave.

The Business of Healthcare
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