When Clients Seek Second Careers in Healthcare

By Allison Peterson

With the rapid growth of employment opportunities in the healthcare sector, it’s no wonder a number of clients enrolling in health professions programs are embarking on a second career. Many have a previous college degree and yet remain frustrated in trying to realize career success in the recent economy.

At the same time, educational programs in healthcare have diversified with some offering the convenience of accelerated and on-line coursework. Adult learners are flocking to healthcare jobs – attracted by growth, secure income, and the chance to help others.

Whether you work as a career practitioner in a college of nursing setting or a state health care system or operate a private practice, what should you keep in mind when serving this population interested in healthcare careers? Here are two healthcare challenges that career practitioners might want to acknowledge and address with clients.

Physical Demands
First, many clients underestimate the rigorous physical demands of healthcare roles. Nurses, physical therapists, radiology staff, and others who work in hospital settings often work several consecutive twelve hour shifts. While most newcomers are attracted to working a shorter work week, new graduates and second career workers often report exhaustion after their intensive shifts and sleep through the following day or two to recover. Their illusion of “3 days on, 4 days off” is quickly dispelled, creating disappointment and scheduling problems for families.

Betsy, a second career nurse with two children, called me to say that after seven months on the job, she felt she had made a career mistake. She described the stress, high patient volumes, fast-changing priorities and tired feet that plagued her. Angela, another second career nurse with a background in real estate sales, stopped by my office with similar concerns. Both women were in their 40’s, in good physical condition and highly dedicated to their new profession. Yet they described exhaustion, physical pain and a chronic fatigue that interfered with their family time and sense of well-being.

Having excelled in their studies, the second-career nurses added value to their roles due to their life experience, their proven work ethic, and good stress management skills. Yet here they were, struggling to keep up with the demands of a role they were fully trained to perform – a job in which life and death decisions are made daily.

A second-career physical therapist assistant also reported suffering from joint aches and back problems. Even with two college degrees, she still worried about the future. She works weekdays at a veteran’s clinic and Saturdays at a rehabilitation hospital to cover her mortgage. Dealing with daily fatigue and pain, she wonders how her body will hold out for the long road to retirement.

While many settings employ healthcare staff (doctor’s offices, schools, insurance companies, etc.), hospitals continue to lead the employment and that’s where long shifts, high levels of patient acuity and unpredictable patient volumes are commonplace. Adding to the physical demand is the reality that more Americans are obese than ever before, requiring heavy lifting by those charged with caring for them.

Compassion Fatigue
Another consideration for nurses and other healthcare professionals relates to a phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue.” It is a constellation of symptoms stemming from stress, exhaustion, and some would argue, too many regulations – all of which are thrust upon those in healthcare roles. A home health nurse commented that she spends 45 minutes of her initial hour-long patient visit simply documenting information required by her employer, the insurance company and regulators.

While providing care to clients is at the core of their career choice, that foundation of caring can become brittle and crack under chronic stress, resulting in behaviors ranging from rudeness or anger to sleeplessness, depression or substance abuse. While anyone in a caring profession can experience “compassion fatigue,” second career healthcare staff may be at greater risk because of caregiving demands on them at home – from young children to aging parents. Not only is this burn-out heartbreaking for the employee, it is devastating to patients as well. Instead of being treated with care and respect, a patient might encounter an exhausted, angry healthcare provider.

Addressing Workplace Risks
Many resources are available to help employees across industries combat the risks of physical and emotional stress. The routine enjoyment of leisure activities and a strong support system can go a long way in mitigating the effects of stress. Free apps for meditation and mindfulness put these resources at one’s fingertips (http://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/top-meditation-iphone-android-apps#1). Major hospitals lead the way in workplace wellness programs. And thousands of employers offer health club discounts and employee assistance programs to support their employees in leading healthier lives.

In the examples above, Betsy pursued a new job involving patient education, a less physically demanding role than bedside nursing; Angela remained a hospital nurse but reduced her working hours and reported a greater work/life balance. The physical therapist assistant started a fitness and nutrition program to strengthen her body and manage her pain.

While we cannot anticipate which clients will suffer from the physical demands of the job or from compassion fatigue, a holistic discussion of healthcare careers can address these potential workplace risks. In addition, the career practitioner might discuss what type of self-care the client practices and inquire how they might avert workplace injury and compassion fatigue. The physical and emotional demands of caring for others do not need to deter those targeting healthcare careers. But an awareness of these factors as part of a holistic career counseling program can equip your clients to critically consider workplace realities and plan for the more challenging aspects of caregiving careers.

Additional resources

American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2016, Mar). Nursing fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets

Cleveland Clinic Wellness (2016). Stress free now. Retrieved from http://www.clevelandclinicwellness.com/Programs/Pages/StressFreeNow.aspx

Meyer, L. (2016). Mayo’s growth in wellness to expand as it keeps its focus ‘People centric.’ Corporate Wellness Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/worksite-wellness/mayos-growth-in-wellness-to-expand-as-it-keeps-its-focus-people-centric/

United States Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2015, Sept). Adult obesity facts. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html


Allison Peterson 2017Allison Peterson, MS Ed., is a career counselor at Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing in Richmond, VA. Building on twenty years of experience in healthcare recruiting and higher education, she is an associate editor of NCDA’s Career Convergence web magazine. Allison_Peterson@bshsi.org



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Garry Olive   on Tuesday 09/05/2017 at 12:35 PM

Great article and insights!

Cynthia Marco Scanlon   on Tuesday 09/05/2017 at 12:59 PM

Thanks - excellent info, Allison!

Nicole Adjare   on Wednesday 09/20/2017 at 10:55 PM

Great article! Thanks for the link to Free apps for meditation and mindfulness!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.