INDUSTRY
February 23, 2022

New Report Reveals Hard Truths About Travel Nursing

Travel nurse on a bus
Kathleen Gaines
By: Kathleen Gaines News and Education Editor, MSN, RN, BA, CBC

As the travel nursing industry booms and more and more nurses are leaving staff bedside positions for highly paid travel nurse positions, it can seem like the best possible nursing job. But, there is also an often untalked about side to travel nursing. 

Despite the high pay, our 2022 State of Nursing study found that the travel nurses surveyed (127 in total) are actually reporting the highest levels of dissatisfaction, burnout, and work-life balance compared to other types of nurses. In fact, they were least likely to report feeling that nursing is a great career compared to staff, part-time and per-diem nurses.

While we know that this isn't reflective of all travel nurses' experiences, these responses were notable enough for us to feel compelled to share them. To see the full independent study conducted by Nurse.org, you can download the report here

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Chart of nurses who answered somewhat or strongly disagree to the statement "Nursing is a great career" 40% of travel nurses disagreed with this statement

What Was Travel Nursing Like Prior to COVID?

Prior to COVID, travel nurses were oftentimes treated like one of the hospital's own. Sometimes they were given assignments just like any other staff nurse, while other times they were given the patients that the regular staff needed a break from. 

 

While this wasn’t ALWAYS the case - more often than not, travel nurses experienced many perks that staff nurses didn’t. They also previously reported much higher job satisfaction than bedside staff nurses. 

 

COVID Has Drastically Changed Travel Nursing 

At the start of the pandemic, crisis nursing and travel nursing were where the money was.  

Nurses would hop from New York to Washington to Texas in search of those highly coveted and elusive contracts. Working 6 out of 7 days didn’t sound terrible when pulling in paychecks in the 5 figures. Travel nurses would work, eat, sleep and do it all over again, day after day.

Oftentimes, these contracts came with increased risk. Generally speaking, they were COVID contracts where nurses had to work in highly infected areas with severely sick and dying patients. These nurses were exposed to COVID every single day, for upwards of 16 hours a day. On top of that, they often had to do this without proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

In 2022, travel nurses still have the ability to earn much higher paychecks than their staff counterparts, but COVID has drastically changed travel nursing, and not for the better. 

How Are Travel Nurses Feeling During the Pandemic?

While many nurses have turned to travel nursing, or thought about exploring it during the pandemic, travel nurses have actually reported higher levels of struggle than any other type of nurse.

  • 70% of travel nurses feel unappreciated
  • 73% of travel nurses feel unsafe at work
  • 77% of travel nurses feel they’re not being paid fairly
  • Travel nurses were least likely to say “Nursing is a great career”

Travel Nurse’s Basic Needs Are Not Being Met

Despite the ongoing pandemic, advertised high salaries, and overall appeal of travel nursing - many have MAJOR concerns. 

  • Over 85% of travel nurses say that they don’t take a full break during their shift.
  • 65% report that they don’t feel like they can take a sick day when needed. 

73% of travel nurses feel unsafe at work

No Breaks for Travel Nurses

Feeling unable to take a full, uninterrupted break during their shift is an ongoing issue with all types of nurses. Due to the ongoing staffing shortage, the overwhelming number of patients and increased responsibility, bedside nurses, in general, are not taking breaks. 

However, travel nurses, because of their higher pay than staff nurses, often have heavier assignments than staff nurses. Therefore, travel nurses may not be able to hand off their patient assignments during breaks. 

Calling in Sick Isn’t an Option

While sick days amongst nurses have been a major concern due to COVID, travel nurses often have stipulations in their contracts that make it even harder for them to take a sick day when needed.

Depending on the travel company, contract, and hospital - travel nurses might lose bonus money, weekly stipends, or other incentives if they call out sick. 

Travel nurses also reported the following safety concerns in our survey:

  • Travel nurses don’t feel they can turn down extra shifts
  • Travel nurses feel they have to go outside of their scope of work more
  • Travel nurses have felt more uncomfortable making decisions outside of their comfort zone/moral code in the past year than other nurses
  • Travel nurses feel unsafe at work

Mental Health Concerns for Travel Nurses

Travel nurses reported dealing with the following mental health-related issues during the pandemic:

  • Travel nurses are more likely to be burnt out than other types of nurses
  • Travel nurses feel less appreciated than other types of nurses
  • Travel nurses feel less supported than other types of nurses
  • 92% of travel nurses feel that their mental health has suffered because of their job (more than any other type of nurse)

Burnout

The burnout amongst all nurses, but travel nurses in particular, is real! Travel nurse burnout can be attributed to COVID crisis contracts, unsafe staffing and patient assignments, and increased contract demands for increased pay. For example, more and more travel contracts are requiring 48- to 60-hours a week, versus the pre-COVID typical 36-hours a week. 

Isolation

Travel nurses also don’t have the established connections that staff nurses do, which can make their job very isolating, especially during a pandemic. Most travel nurses reported simply going to work and staying alone on their days off to avoid getting sick.

Travel Nurses Feel Underpaid

While travel nurse jobs are known for their high pay, our survey found that travel nurses actually feel they are being underpaid. In fact, 77% of travel nurses feel they’re not being paid fairly. 

This may seem astounding considering the media constantly reports on the high pay packages for travel nurses, and some states have recently proposed legislation to cap travel nurse pay. But based on the unsafe working conditions, inability to take breaks, and high rates of burnout that travel nurses have described facing, it’s understandable that they don’t see their increased compensation as enough. 

According to Payscale.com, as of December 2021, these are some of the wages travel nurses can expect in certain states:

State Annual Salary Hourly Pay
New York $118,145 $56.80
New Hampshire $114,727 $55.16
Wyoming $105,304 $50.63
West Virginia $102,645 $49.35
Massachusetts $101,389 $48.74

Higher rates can be earned for individuals that accept COVID contracts, but they need to be prepared for what they are getting into, including potentially being exposed to COVID-19. 

How Do Travel Nurses Feel About the Nursing Profession?

Interestingly, 43% of travel nurses don’t think that new nurses should join the nursing profession. This is significantly higher than any other type of nurse, which averaged roughly 30%. 

What Advice Do Travel Nurses Have for Staff Nurses Considering Traveling?

We asked real travel nurses on Instagram what their advice is for nurses considering getting into travel nursing. Here’s what they had to say:

Travel nurses, what advice do you have for staff nurses who are considering traveling?

1. Make a Pros and Cons List

"Do a pros and cons list, join travel nurse groups on Facebook, follow travel nurse IG pages and read the posts and comments, research different agencies, have all your documents in order, then go for it!" –  @nursekathleengreen

2. Be Prepared

"Get all your vaccinations, PPD, etc up to date. Get a physical and print out before you lose health insurance from your current hospital. Find all certifications, diplomas, licenses. Get everything together to make it easier for compliance." – @jennysilk

3. Start Slow

"Take a short assignment close to home first. It gets lonely. 4-8 weeks will let you know. Never sign on for 13 weeks for your first assignment." – @napologetically.jazz

4. Consider Your Finances

"It’s not as straightforward as you think, you are required to duplicate living expenses if you take non-tax stipends. Be sure to talk with a tax professional before taking the travel plunge!" – @thecranehouse

5. Choose Your Contracts Wisely

"1. Don’t just chase the highest paying contracts, strategically choose premium assignments aligned with your GOALS

2. Leverage each contract to build your skillset and increase your earning potential

3. Take advantage of your increased income and flexible schedule to invest in yourself (mentally, spiritually, emotionally and financially): learn how to build WEALTH, learn a NEW skillset outside of nursing, learn to REST (take that vacation— you deserve it!)

4. Repeat steps 1-3 and you’ll be able to get out of the rat race and live your best life 💖  " – @sarah_gaines

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Learn More About the State of Nursing Report and the Ongoing Nursing Shortage

If you want to learn more about the nursing shortage and our State of Nursing survey, check out the following articles and download the full report below.

Download the 2022 state of nursing report

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