Rachel Simonis thought she would spend her career as a nurse on the newborn intensive care unit of Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wisc. But it wasn’t long before the stress of the hospital started to take a toll, and then the pandemic pushed her over the edge. Simonis, 26, quit that job in 2021 and decided to pivot to a starkly different work environment: a medspa clinic. 

“I felt like that was just my calling, that was what I needed to do, that was what I was going to do for my whole career,” Simonis said of her work as a NICU nurse. “But just between the hours, the weekend hours, the call hours, just the hospital politics themself and the emotional toll and everything, I’m like, I just don’t see myself here forever.”

Simonis is now a nurse injector at Robertson Cosmetic Center, a nearby medspa clinic where she was hired to administer Botox and filler. The job came with better hours and work conditions, she said, a contrast from the hospital, particularly as it was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The stress level was unmatched. I would walk into the hospital and have no idea what I was coming into, no idea what my patient load was, how sick they were going to be like, or what I was going to have to do,” she said. “Whereas now, I can look into the next day and kind of have an idea of the pace of my day, how many patients and what to expect.” 

Simonis is just one of many nurses who have increasingly fled bedside work to fill jobs in the $16.1 billion aesthetics industry, which has boomed throughout the pandemic. The share of jobs searches per million for aesthetic nurse jobs jumped by 134% from a year ago in February 2022, on the career website Indeed. 

The data reflects a broader pivot among healthcare workers away from the traditional bedside roles that kept them on the frontlines of Covid-19 as U.S. hospitals were pushed to the brink in 2020, deepening long-standing complaints about work conditions and compensation. That comes even as interest in nursing edges higher, with job seeker interest in the overall field rising 1.7% from February 2021, according to Indeed. 

“Of course folks are wanting to leave the bedside,” said Cathy Kennedy, a registered nurse and the president of the California Nurses Association. “They want to call it burnout. It’s not burnout. It’s moral distress. I’m talking about when there is a human being that died and we don’t even have an opportunity to decompress before the next person comes in.”

The share of job searches per million on Indeed for work-from-home, remote, telehealth or telemedicine nursing jobs rose by nearly 130% from in the year that ended in February. The share of jobs searches per million for travel nurse jobs — which are often in hospitals but offer short-term commitment, more flexibility and steep pay bonuses — rose sixfold from a year earlier. 

“I think that nursing preferences have shifted toward those positions,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. 

Desperate for staff and bolstered by an infusion of federal aid, hospitals across the United States have offered salary increases since the pandemic began. The average salary for registered nurses is $118,530, according to the job site Glassdoor. While the average salary for aesthetics nurses comes in far lower at $97,144, some nurses say the flexibility and work-life balance are worth it. 

Simonis, the nurse in Madison, Wisc., has started to make up for the pay cut she saw in aesthetics through a salary structure at the medspa clinic that allows her to make commissions. With a Monday through Friday schedule and far less stress, she said it was highly unlikely that she would return to a bedside position. 

“With hospital administration, they would say nurses are healthcare heroes,” Simonis said. “They preach so much like, our nurses are our saving grace. They do everything. They’re the ones at the bedside. They’re taking care of our patients. But what is the hospital actually doing to reward them and keep them there?”

The shift away from bedside nursing jobs has exacerbated a healthcare worker shortage that had threatened crisis at hospitals across the country even before the coronavirus pandemic began. An aging population has fueled a rapid rise in demand for health care at the same time that workers have quit the field in droves. 

More than a fifth of U.S. healthcare workers quit their jobs in the first two years of the pandemic, a recent Morning Consult poll showed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 194,500 openings for registered nurse positions are projected to go unfilled each year through 2030.

Jordan Teixeira, 31, left her position as a nurse in psychiatric home care five years ago and moved to aesthetics for the “pay and lifestyle,” a decision she felt particularly thankful for when the pandemic hit. The aesthetics field also allowed her an opportunity she would almost certainly not have at a hospital: to open her own practice in Swansea, Mass. 

“You get a different type of clientele, and work is fun,” said Teixeira, the owner of House of Beauty Medspa. “As a nurse in a hospital setting, you are overworked and underpaid, especially since the pandemic.”

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