For Audra Williams, intensive care unit (ICU) nursing was her "passion." And for almost eight years, it was her career, leading her to work across four U.S. states including, most recently, New York.
But when the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year, and when New York City turned into the virus' global epicenter at one point, she was faced with a difficult decision: Should she leave behind the job she loves for the sake of her own health?
"My mental health suffered more than I had ever experienced," Williams told CNBC Make It.
Excessive workload, failed leadership and emotional trauma left Williams facing anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and in July 2020, she left her nursing job to become an advocate for health-care workers.
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A mass health-care exodus
Williams is one of many health-care workers rethinking their frontline careers in response to heightened pressure from the Covid-19 crisis.
According to recent studies, between 20% and 30% of frontline U.S. health-care workers say they are now considering leaving the profession. Notably, one April 2021 study by health care jobs marketplace Vivian found that four in 10 (43%) nurses are considering leaving their role in 2021 — a figure that is higher among ICU workers (48%).
And the U.S. is not alone in this phenomenon. A recent report by the British Medical Association found that thousands of U.K. doctors plan to leave the National Health Service after the pandemic due to exhaustion and concerns over their mental health.
Close to one-third (31%) of those surveyed said they were now more likely to retire early, while a quarter (25%) were considering taking a career break and around one in six (17%) said they would rather work in another country.
"A combination of the way the pandemic has been handled and years of chronic underinvestment has left me disillusioned. I am not only considering leaving my job, but also the country," Danny Leigh, a radiographer from Cumbria, England told the Guardian.
Covid adds to existing issues
But the pandemic is only the latest problem in an already ailing health system.
Chronic underfunding, long hours, staff shortages — not to mention the emotional and mental toll of frontline medical work — have, for years, chipped away at global health-care systems and their crucial workers.
"The extreme stressors of the Covid pandemic have served to, in many cases, more firmly solidify evolving decisions for career change by many clinicians who already were having doubts about the viability of their clinical careers," said Harry Severance, an adjunct assistant professor at Duke University School of Medicine. He said he's heard firsthand from a number of medical professionals who are reconsidering their careers.
Indeed, one U.S. survey conducted in 2018, prior to the pandemic, found that almost half (48%) of clinicians said they planned on changing careers due to extreme workloads (80%), burnout (78%) and pessimism about the future of medicine (62%). Virtually half (49%) said they would not recommend medicine as a career for their own children.
Severance said that's because the interests of governments, public and private medical institutions and health-care workers themselves are becoming more conflicted, which will in turn make the system more vulnerable to "further pandemics or other economic, political or social upheavals."
Advice for those considering a career move
Still, the rewarding factors that lead people into the medical profession cannot be ignored.
Last year, even as the pandemic turned some away from the medical profession, it also attracted many more.
"It's heartening to see that more students want to pursue a career in medicine in order to serve their communities and make a difference," said David Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which saw enrollments rise 1.7% in the academic year 2020.
Meantime, the often substantial personal investment into medical careers can make the decision to change course even more difficult.
As such, Severance advised health-care professionals who are reconsidering their careers to avoid making rash decisions in response to the pandemic. Instead, he recommended first thinking about a few important factors:
- Identify the issue or issues causing dissatisfaction and determine whether there are ways to address them.
- If not, clearly define what you are seeking in your next role. That could be reduced hours, less stress, a different work schedule, or a different line of work altogether. If possible, find a way to trial this on the side.
- Next, think about any additional finances or training you may need to make the switch and whether you would be willing to take a pay cut.
- Finally, think about how those changes will impact your personal life and plans moving forward.
For many, the pandemic may act as a bump in the road in an otherwise fulfilling career. But for former nurse Williams, she's satisfied with her decision to reapply her health-care skills, and she doesn't see herself back on the wards anytime soon.
"I found new ways of touching lives outside of the hospital, and find great satisfaction in my new career direction," she said.
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