The COVID-19 pandemic: Rethinking your nursing career

Author(s): Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world on every level imaginable, and nurses’ lives and careers are not immune. Nurses may find themselves on the front lines in ICUs or ERs, and others may serve in research, education, primary care, or any number of specialties. No matter, the tentacles of this novel coronavirus are long and stealthy, leaving virtually no one untouched.

If nurses are faced with fear and uncertainty in both the personal and professional spheres just like everyone else, what might they be thinking when it comes to career recalibration? Is a personal sea change afoot? Are some just pressing their noses to the grindstone? The answers are as diverse as the nursing workforce itself.

Knowing when it’s time to go

A recalibration of one’s life and career can occur at any time, and major life passages are moments that can instigate change, including marriage, divorce, birth, and loss. With the pandemic having swallowed up the entirety of 2020 – not to mention the potential for continued struggle in 2021 –nurses may be considering how to prioritize.

One choice during this unprecedented moment is to dig our heels in and do the work that needs to be done. Countless nurses may feel utterly exhausted by the ongoing stress, but leaving for a less intensive setting may feel like giving up on patients and abandoning colleagues who plan to slog it out for as long as it takes. For those who leave the front lines to care for themselves, there should be no blame or shame in doing so; as the singer Michelle Shocked once sang, “the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go”.

Pandemic career recalibration

In the face of this existential threat, nurses may be taking a deep look at their lives, values, and priorities with fresh perspective. With the American COVID-19 death count nearing 200,000 at the time of this writing, along with the unremitting suffering of millions, nursing professionals may be considering how short life truly is. If the kids are struggling with remote learning and social isolation and need their parents more than ever, that could be reason enough to switch gears for other opportunities.

One can easily imagine a beleaguered nurse thinking that a remote home-based nursing position sounds pretty attractive right about now. Remote work can offer more time with family due to the lack of a commute, the potential for a flexible schedule, and the ability to work in slippers and sweat pants (with an appropriate top for Zoom meetings, of course).

Meanwhile, seeking a specialty certification in pursuit of new career opportunities may come to mind. And in light of an ongoing financial downturn, there are economists who might advise that going back to school during a depressed economy can be smart when interest rates are near zero and jobs less plentiful in certain markets.

In terms of the burgeoning world of nurse entrepreneurship, starting a side business with a plan for future expansion is a viable path forward, as is diving even more deeply into business in light of the aforementioned desire to work from home and be closer to family.

Every choice has its detractions and advantages, and individual circumstances will dictate the most prudent path forward.

Sisyphus, desperate times, and new horizons

Life can indeed seem short in the context of the worst pandemic in living memory, and one’s nursing career can simultaneously seem like a never-ending grind of Sisyphean proportions. The story of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain every day for eternity only to have it roll to the bottom and have to begin again the next morning can be seen as a cautionary tale for the hard-working nurse. COVID-19 may very well be a chance to lay the boulder aside and try a less arduous challenge.

Some nurses can easily fall into addiction, self-denial, burnout, compassion fatigue, or plain old garden variety despair and depression. They may not remember the story of Sisyphus, but they know the boulder all too well.

Desperate times may call for a new plan, but desperate measures aren’t necessarily the only choice. Thoughtful, prudent change is possible, even during a raging pandemic.

Nursing career recalibration may be worthy of consideration for the nurse who feels that something simply has to give. Thus, rather than allowing mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health to take a significant hit, a well-executed change of direction may be just what the nurse ordered in order for that boulder to be thrown aside and a new horizon to make itself known.

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.

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