By Sarah Wengert
Whether it’s the freedom from hospital politics, ability to travel nationwide, or overall flexibility, travel nursing has emerged as a well-known way for nurses to protect their mental health.
“I’ve been a nurse since 2014, and I love people, but I could not find my niche in nursing,” Alyssa Gainer, RN, said. “I switched jobs every one to two years, and after COVID started, I was ready for a new profession.”
Gainer, currently a travel nurse specializing in med surg with Medical Solutions, could have packed it in entirely then, leaving an already struggling healthcare industry with one less nurse during a pandemic. But she found a way to keep going.
“Travel nursing changed my outlook on being a nurse,” she said. “I feel like I’m actually making a difference, and I’m no longer burnt out! I get to take breaks in between assignments, and I cannot express the joy of being a traveler.”
Travel healthcare gave Gainer a new outlook on her career, allowing her to address her own mental health as she continued to care for others at facilities in which her help was most needed. Unfortunately, Gainer isn’t alone in flagging under the weight of crushing nurse burnout.
Travel Nursing and Mental Health by the Numbers
Data collected in a Medical Solutions survey on mental health benefits sent in Feb. 2023 — answered by 260 then-current Medical Solutions travel clinicians — indicated several important findings for the state of mental health among nurses and how travel nursing plays an additional role in travelers’ mental health. As a baseline, 55% of respondents rated their overall mental health as “good” or “excellent,” 28% reported it as “neutral,” 15% answered “somewhat poor,” and 2% answered “poor.”
In a series of questions, 56% of clinician respondents affirmed they have difficulty sleeping, 56% often worry about things that are out of their control, and 35% are often fatigued to the point that it impacts their ability to function. Another 16% reported they have difficulty seeing the positive in things.
However, 65% of respondents affirmed their mental health was better since becoming a travel nurse than it was when they were on permanent staff, 26% said it was the same, and just 10% said it was worse. When asked which aspects of travel nursing they felt contributed to their improved mental health, 90% cited less involvement in workplace politics, 83% cited flexibility to choose jobs/locations, 71% cited better work/life balance and change in environments, 32% attributed the improvement to better support as a travel nurse, and 11% said agency-provided mental health support.
In the same Medical Solutions survey, 61% of travelers responded that becoming a travel nurse improved their willingness to continue working as a nurse. This stat shows travel nursing is actually keeping nurses working in the healthcare industry — a particularly important data point for nurses, patients, and facilities during a massive nurse shortage.
Additionally, just like anybody, if a nurse’s mental health suffers, their physical health is likely to suffer, which can remove them from the pool of working nurses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), people with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population, and those with serious mental illness are nearly twice as likely to develop these conditions. Data from NAMI also shows mental health issues can lead to substance abuse and an increased risk for unemployment.
Solutions to Address Nurse Mental Health
As nurse staffing shortages continue to rise, the last thing the healthcare industry needs is for healthcare professionals to become so burnt out that they quit nursing and/or become acute patients themselves. According to NAMI, mental illness and substance use disorders are involved in one out of every eight emergency department visits by a U.S. adult. Nurses are not immune to this phenomenon.
When we emphasize and invest in nurse mental health, we’re doing right by our fellow humans by serving their needs — whether clinician or patient — and catering to our hospital boards and CFOs by creating better odds for a successful, well-run facility with less turnover and better patient care. We must act to protect our nurses, patients, facilities, communities, and society as a whole, and it takes a multifaceted set of tools to properly address nurse mental health.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a first-line tool to address mental health concerns among nurses and other clinicians. High-quality healthcare staffing agencies put people first by offering EAPs at no cost. Many facilities offer them as well. EAPs provide access to various mental health resources and tools, including 24/7 virtual and in-person counseling sessions with licensed providers, crisis lines, on-demand videos, webinars, forums, advocacy contacts, and other similarly helpful resources. An EAP usually extends to an employee’s family members and can offer help with relationship and parenting issues, depression, anxiety, stress management, substance abuse, grief, work conflicts, child and eldercare concerns, financial issues, and more.
In the Medical Solutions survey, travelers were asked which tools for mental health support they would utilize if offered by their agency. Respondents indicated therapists (53%), mental well-being apps (50%), meditation apps (42%), virtual yoga classes (41%), virtual discussions (22%), and virtual support groups (19%) would be welcomed and used. With their inclusion of several of those tools, an EAP can be a welcome support for nurses.
Another popular tool to address clinician mental health is Code Lavender. According to The Journal of Emergency Nursing (JEN), Code Lavender began in Hawaii in 2004, mainly to support patients and families experiencing emotional or spiritual trauma that exceeded normal levels. Later, the concepts of Code Lavender evolved to include support for staff members.
As Anne Manton, PhD, RN, PMHNP-BC, FAEN, FAAN, wrote in JEN, “Members of the Code Lavender team include hospital chaplains, social workers, holistic certified nurses, and trained volunteers — all with the ability to provide support to a person or persons in immediate need. When a Code Lavender is initiated, the team responds as quickly as possible, ideally within 30 minutes. This enables the Code Lavender response team to offer supportive interventions to restore a level of emotional stability at the time when it is most needed.”
There are several steps to take and questions to ask when wanting to launch a Code Lavender program at your facility, but hopeful outcomes can include increased staff retention and engagement, growing a culture of support, and improved patient outcomes and satisfaction scores. Ultimately though, while Code Lavender is an excellent practice for facilities, it addresses mental health concerns when they’re at an acute, crisis point. Healthcare professionals, patients, and hospital communities must also start by addressing clinician mental health at its root through EAPs and flexible career options in travel healthcare.
Better Nurse Staffing Equals Better Patient Outcomes
Travel nursing is helpful in addressing mental health concerns and nurse burnout in the travel clinician population and among permanent staff members whose units receive help from the additional staffing in their units and facilities. And, in addition to lower burnout among nurses across the board, better staffing has repeatedly been shown to have positive effects on patient care and patient mortality.
Throughout the past several decades, a deep body of research has highlighted beneficial effects of increased nurse staffing, including increased odds of patient survival, decreased time to diagnostic evaluations in emergency rooms, decreased infection risk, and decreased risk of in-hospital cardiac arrest, among other positive patient outcomes.
This clear cause-and-effect relationship between sustaining nurse mental health and improving patient outcomes is something healthcare professionals at all levels know anecdotally and on a gut level. Now, with decades of data backing them up, there’s simply no excuse for allowing insufficient clinician staffing levels to continue to negatively affect our nurses’ mental health alongside patient outcomes. Proper staffing and attention to nurse mental health is the right thing to do on an ethical and financial level — and it’s up to everyone working in healthcare in any capacity to proactively address mental health concerns once and for all, and to make that standard operating procedure going forward.
As for Gaines, she’s elated to represent the many perm staff turned travel nurses who reported that travel nursing has improved their mental health. She’s happy to serve her patients at her variety of destinations, but she’s also enjoying the journey.
“God opened a new path for me, and I’m grateful,” she said. “We’ve traveled over 7,000 miles since starting and have seen the most breathtaking views. If a nurse is considering traveling, I say do it. It truly has changed my life.”
Reach out to Medical Solutions today to learn more!
Sarah Wengert is a senior creative content specialist at Medical Solutions.