Retirement planning often never goes according to plan, but many oncology nurses are facing a retirement dilemma forced upon them by decisions from the higher levels of their respective health systems.
Katy was sixty-one, she’d worked as a manager on a hospital oncology unit for fifteen years, having been a staff nurse in the same oncology unit for ten years before that. She’d endured management shakeups, mergers, converting to electronic health records, and the changes from the Affordable Care Act. She weathered the daily ups and downs of staffing ratios, data and patient satisfaction scores, and turnover of what had once been a staff of forty nurses at any one time on her unit.
She looked forward to retirement at 65, but she wasn’t financially prepared for it yet. She knew that at 65 she’d still have to work at least part-time for a few years beyond that just to stay financially solvent.
After a short vacation, Katy came back to work one Monday morning and was greeted by her boss, “Can you meet me at my office at three?”
At three o’clock she walked into her boss’s office, as she had done a thousand times. This time, a different effect, almost a blank gaze met her instead of the usual greeting as her boss began talking.
“I’m not sure you’re doing everything you can to get those scores up. It seems that you’ve been different lately, and senior management is wondering if you even know how to do your job.”
Katy felt the taste of adrenaline in her mouth and her entire face began to tingle. She wondered for a second if she was having a dream, but the conversation was happening. Feeling the blood rise into her face, she wasn’t sure that she actually heard all of the words coming out of her boss’s mouth.
Her boss’s voice brought her back. “I’d like you to sign here that we had this conversation, and I want you to meet with HR on Wednesday to discuss your performance improvement plan.”
Scanning the paper with her eyes, Katy tried to hold back a deep sigh as she signed. Standing up, she felt wobbly on her feet. Somehow, she made it back to her office without having to talk to anyone, turned off the lights, locked the door, and crumbled into a crying heap in the corner chair.
After a few days of processing what was happening, Katy was shopping for groceries when she ran into a former colleague who had retired from the same hospital. “How are you holding up?” her colleague asked. As they started talking, Katy could not hold back the tears. Trying to pull herself together, the colleague said, “I am so sorry this is happening to you. That’s what they did to me. I don’t remember my self-esteem ever being so low after that experience. I ended up taking early retirement and I got out of there before they fired me.”
Katy’s eyes and ears were wide open. Her friend continued, “They’ll pull this performance improvement thing and then they’ll ride you on every little thing until you get so flustered and overwhelmed that you screw something up or just quit.” She explained they are doing this in all the hospitals now, trying to cut costs. If they can have one less manager and make one person do three people’s jobs, they’ll do it.
“They don’t care how long you’ve worked. They won’t make it easy for you. My advice would be to talk to your financial planner and get out of there, the sooner the better, so the stress won’t eat you alive.”
A growing number of nurses are older and vulnerable to the upheaval that a pre-retirement job loss can bring. It used to be that if you saved and took advantage of any matching retirement plans your employer offered, managed your spending and saved well, you could expect to retire comfortably. You could expect to work until you chose to retire, whether that was at 65 or some other age. Many people still assume they will work their job until retirement age and retire with their financial plan intact.
We can no longer count on that. Along with the rising age of full retirement in the U.S., there is a growing gap between the time workers stop earning their highest level of income and the time they retire with full Social Security benefits and the safety net of Medicare.
Age discrimination is real, and it can be hard to recover if your new job does not compensate you as well as the old one. Women are at risk of even more age discrimination than men¹, and with women making up the majority of oncology nursing this is a major issue for all nurses.
Having a backup plan and a good financial planner is essential. What would you do if you lost your job tomorrow? How would you re-finance your entire life? Do you know a competent professional who could help you get back on your feet?
There’s also the emotional component. How would you handle a blow to your identity as an oncology nurse?
If you love oncology nursing, are there other places where you could continue doing this? Nonprofit organizations in the community? Hospice? Home care? Starting some type of service for people with cancer and their caregivers? Or would you seek something else?