"I Hate Being A Nurse." I Get it, And It Doesn't Have To Be This Way.

burnout entrapment financial independence and impact Mar 11, 2024

Maybe you didn’t end up on this post by angrily mashing the phrase “I hate being a nurse” into Google after getting home exhausted from another 14-hour floor shift. If you did though, it wouldn’t be surprising. I was doing a bit of research into nursing burnout and happened upon an interesting fact. 500 people a month search for the phrase “I hate being a nurse.” It seems crazy, but it's true. I verified it using a couple of different search tools.  

So if you hate being a nurse, you aren’t alone. (Unless there’s just one poor disgruntled soul hammering angrily into Google 500 times every month, which seems possible. Gotta be a new grad, right?) 

It’s the kind of thing you’ll make jokes about with your colleagues in a moment of dark humor tomorrow. It’s also a red flag that something is off here.

That's a cute little anecdote, but according to a recent estimate there are more than 5 million nurses in the US. Depending on which study you consult, somewhere between 500,000 and a million aren’t working in the field. The profession is in crisis because the American healthcare system is down about a million nurses

Why? The reasons are complicated but that “I hate being a nurse” feeling - the one that comes with a sense of defeat, anger, moral injury, hopelessness - it’s a big part of it.

Of nurses who left their jobs in 2018, 30% said they did it because of burnout. That was pre-Covid, and we know things have gotten much worse. We’re struggling. 

 

Why do people “hate being a nurse”?

 

When compared to other professions, nursing always rates among the highest levels of burnout. For most people, nursing is not a career that you’ll stay in through 65. Most of us won’t make it to retirement age in the field. 

Why? 

I’m guessing that outsiders usually think of things like the stress of death and injury and caring and blood and poop. This is what I thought would be hard before I got into nursing myself. Actually though, we get used to that stuff by the time we’re through nursing school. That’s not what nurses say burns them out.

Nurses attribute their burnout to things like:

So, maybe it isn’t that nurses hate nursing, per se. It seems like what we really hate are the impossible situations that we’re put in at work and the lack of institutional support we get while doing it. We can handle the caring. It’s the other stuff that makes our job seem impossible.

How do we manage? The usual frontline message is that we need to be better at self-care. 

That message makes me want to scream. Self-care is not enough. I’ll write another post about that later. It’s a big topic.

For now though, here’s how I did it. 

 

How did I learn to not “hate being a nurse”? 

 

My own feelings about nursing are complicated. I’ve been a nurse for more than 20 years now - almost half my life. 

When I started as a new grad, I was coming from a financially unstable background. Nursing was a steady income and reliable work, and it seemed like a lifeline. It represented a chance to end the sort of money stress that my parents felt for as long as I can remember. It was a job that I could feel good about doing, and a path out of poverty. I’m still grateful for what it gave me in terms of life options that I never would have had otherwise. Since I started my career, I’ve never had to worry about whether or not I’d have a livable income or a job. You’ll understand how much that means if you’ve ever had to wait in line at the food pantry, or had your parents tell you not to answer the phone in case it was bill collectors.

Being a nurse has allowed me to do things I never imagined possible growing up. It allowed me to go on an exchange to Australia and do a clinical placement taking small planes to remote outback communities. It allowed me to live and work in New Zealand. It gave me a path towards graduate school and it gave me the flexibility to take long periods off without worry about negatively impacting my career path.

In a lot of ways, I don’t hate nursing. I love it and will always be grateful for what it’s given me.

Also though, nursing has completely eaten me alive. As a new grad on night shift in a high-acuity public hospital in Kentucky, I didn’t know if I’d survive my first year. Then, as I got a little bit more comfortable in my role, the pressure and stress of covering extra shifts and extra patients and not enough time to do my job safely ground me down. I learned to love my days off and hate my days on. The Sunday Scaries were real except they fell on every day of the week.

I did what a lot of people do in overwhelming situations. I worked harder and pursued more education. I wanted to conquer the stress of nursing and get a sense of mastery over it. I felt like, if I advanced more, and learned more, at some point in the future nursing would feel manageable. 

When I was stressed out, I followed the self-care advice. I did yoga. I exercised a lot to the point that I was running ultramarathons regularly. I used emotion regulation techniques. I spent time with friends and family. I went to bed early. I cut down my alcohol intake and watched my diet. 

Long story short, it didn’t work. 

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t take it anymore. I burned out. At age 35 I quit my job, and I left nursing feeling like I may never go back. I spent a few years away from nursing and considered letting my license lapse. 

Maybe I’m being a bit too honest here, but life away from nursing was so much less stressful. If you decide to quit nursing, my experience is that your life might actually get better. 

Also though, for me, after some time away, that started to feel sad. It felt sad to leave behind a field where I’d invested so much time and developed so much expertise. I also knew that the field needs experienced nurses. I still felt like nursing was important work. It felt wrong that I should feel like I had to leave my career just because the system is so screwed up.

So, I decided to go back and figure it out. This time though I’d set clear boundaries to try to avoid the things that burnt me out. I wouldn’t work full-time. I wouldn’t feel bad about not picking up extra responsibilities. I’d go into a less stressful job. I’d speak up when situations weren’t right or weren’t fair. I’d advocate for my colleagues. And if things got to be too much, I’d just quit.

It’s been five years now and I’m surviving. I still have my moments, but I’m surviving. I don’t hate nursing.

 

How can you learn not to hate nursing?

 

In my experience, there are a few things that have made survival in nursing possible. Few to none of them look like traditional self-care techniques.

  1. Nursing feels sustainable to me now because I feel (and have) the freedom to quit. This might seem contradictory, but one of the things that keeps me going is the knowledge that I’ll be okay if I leave. Because that’s the case, I don’t feel trapped in an unacceptable situation. 
  2. Nursing also feels sustainable because I don’t work full-time. In all of the research, one of the consistent findings is that your risk of burnout as a nurse drops exponentially if you work half time or less. I can attest to this. Working 20 - 25 hours a week as a nurse is much better than working 36 - 48 hours a week. It means that I don’t feel constantly overwhelmed by the mess of problems that come along with front-line nursing work. It’s not all of my life. It’s just a part of it.
  3. And nursing also feels sustainable because from time to time, I take long periods away from it. After my 5 year “sabbatical” when I quit nursing, I realized how helpful it can be to take time away from the field. I’ve had the same job for several years now, but I’ve taken a month off on several occasions when I felt like I was slipping back into stressful patterns. 

All of that adds up to a feeling that I don’t hate nursing, and I don’t need to leave the field. 

I believe that if nurses can create a situation where they have the kind of flexibility that I have, they’ll last a lot longer. Fewer of us will burn out, and more of us will stick around and use our experience to strengthen the profession.

The situation I’ve described might sound like a fantasy world, especially if you’re early in your career or facing a lot of debt. I felt that way for a lot of my life too. I worked more than full-time during the first decade of my career, not just because I wanted to get better at the job, but because I felt like I had to financially. For years I assumed that’s what life would always be like in nursing. You might too.

However, I realized I had the freedom to quit at 35 in large part because I looked at my finances. I realized that I’d managed them well enough during the first decade of my career to have real freedom for the rest of it. My career started with large student loans and scraping together the remaining tuition money by donating plasma and working nights as a CNA. Vowing, “no more,” money management and investing correctly put me in a great financial position when I needed it. Years later, when nursing started to seem impossible. I could afford to quit. 

It took me a while to realize it, but because I could afford to quit, I figured out that I didn’t have to. I could just drop back my hours, take a lower paycheck, and let my investments do the heavy lifting. I surprise myself each time I remember that my investments pay me more each year than my nursing salary! 

I hate what nursing can feel like when you’re in it full-time, but I don’t hate nursing, and I didn’t want to leave. A good financial strategy is what got me to a place where I didn’t have to continue with the patterns that were burning me out in the field.

I know other nurses can replicate this, and I know I’m not special. I know that you can get there more quickly than you probably expect. 

I also know that a lot of nurses feel the same sort of emotions that I did - that feeling of being stuck in a situation they can’t stand, without a clear plan to get out. I know that’s a big part of why so many of us are burning out. 

That’s why, when I came back to nursing, I put together a plan to teach other nurses to manage their money. In my experience, it’s the most important thing you can do to survive in the nursing profession. It frees you from the feeling that nursing owns you and that you’re stuck in an unsustainable situation. It gives you the freedom to set whatever boundaries around work that you need to and allows you to approach nursing on your own terms. 

I know that it’s possible to put yourself in a position where being a nurse doesn’t make you want to shout  “I hate nursing!” into the internet void every day after work. Getting to a point of financial freedom is an essential part of the path to get there. 

Helping nurses get to that level of freedom is what Nurses Investing for Wealth is about. 

I write about some of the things you need to know on this blog, but the lesson in my story is that it’s not just what you know when it comes to finances, it’s what you do. (After all, I got to a position of financial independence before I even realized it because I’d set the right behaviors early in my career.) Helping you change your financial behavior and therefore change your life isn’t something I can accomplish just on a blog, but it is what my program, Ultimate Nurse Investing, does for nurses. If you want to get started down that path, click here.
 


Studies and articles cited in this post

Brewer, Katherine C. “Institutional betrayal in nursing: A concept analysis.” Nursing ethics vol. 28,6 (2021): 1081-1089. doi:10.1177/0969733021992448

Christensen, J. (2023) "A crisis in nursing is upon us," Nursing survey shows, even after the pandemic, CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/01/health/nurses-unhappy-survey/index.html (Accessed: 06 March 2024).

Mozafaripour, S. (2024) The 2021 American Nursing Shortage: A data study, University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Available at: https://www.usa.edu/blog/nursing-shortage/ (Accessed: 06 March 2024).

Rabin, Sarah et al. “Moral Injuries in Healthcare Workers: What Causes Them and What to Do About Them?.” Journal of healthcare leadership vol. 15 153-160. 16 Aug. 2023, doi:10.2147/JHL.S396659

Shah, M. K., Gandrakota, N., Cimiotti, J. P., Ghose, N., Moore, M., & Ali, M. K. "Prevalence of and Factors Associated With Nurse Burnout in the US." JAMA Netw Open, vol. 4, no. 2, 2021, e2036469. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.36469.

Smiley, R.A. et al. (2023) The 2022 National Nursing Workforce Survey, Journal of Nursing Regulation. Available at: https://www.journalofnursingregulation.com/article/S2155-8256(23)00047-9/fulltext (Accessed: 06 March 2024).

Thew, J. (2019) "Want to keep nurses at the bedside? Here’s how," HealthLeaders Media. Available at: https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/nursing/want-keep-nurses-bedside-heres-how (Accessed: 06 March 2024).

Wiesen, K. (2024) ‘How Many Nurses are There in the U.S. – 2024 State Wise Data’, NursingProcess.org. Available at: https://www.nursingprocess.org/how-many-nurses-are-there-in-the-us.html (Accessed: 2024).

 

 

 

 

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