How Volunteering Helped Me Combat Nurse Burnout

Written by: Kylee Nelson, RN


I’ve been a NICU nurse for 8+ years, and I’ve loved every second of it.  But only two years into my journey as a nurse, I suddenly felt like I was missing out.  Like there was something “more”. I was just on the cusp of figuring it out what it was.

As a new grad I worked on a unit that had high staff turnover, busy assignments, and few nurses. Management wasn’t always present, and it seemed that all of us new grads (and there were a lot of us) were left to sink or swim.  While I wouldn’t change that experience, it quickly led to feelings of burnout. I often wondered how some nurses stayed in their career for 20+ years. I felt defeated, so I decided to explore other avenues of nursing.




After gaining two years of experience in a surgical, level III NICU, I gave my two-week’s notice and decided to become a travel nurse.  During my first assignment, I started to feel lighter. My patient loads weren’t as heavy, and I worked in a hospital with a wonderful team of managers.  While I still felt like something was missing, I no longer dreaded work.



While I was a travel nurse, I ventured to figure out what it was that was “missing” in my career.  It seemed that I could and wanted to do more to help preemies, their families, and other nurses. That’s when I happened upon the idea of becoming a volunteer nurse.  At the time, I wasn’t sure it would fix how I felt, but the thought of volunteering excited me enough to go for it.  After searching Google for days on end trying to find the perfect opportunity, I found Project HOPE.

Project HOPE is an international non-governmental global health and humanitarian aid organization.  There was an opportunity for a NICU RN to travel to Skopje, North Macedonia to work in the children’s hospital. The job entailed educating the nurses on new equipment and supplies the unit was set to receive.  I quickly applied without knowing how much this one experience would change my life.



Fast forward, I spent 8-weeks volunteering in in the NICU/PICU at the Children’s Hospital of Skopje.  I taught nurses lessons in thermoregulation, VAP, ROP, how to use a UAC/UVC, and more.  While I was working more hours than I was in the US, I felt more and more eager to return to work, and less and less burned out.  I felt purposeful, helpful, and like I was truly making a change. And I also figured out what I was missing: on the weekends I was doing what set my soul on fire – traveling solo around Europe.



If you’re interested in pursuing volunteer nursing, here’s how to go about it…

  • Make a list of what you’re passionate about – education, caring for patients, etc.
  • Make a list of your strengths – any strengths that can transfer to nursing.
  • Think of where you’re wanting/willing to travel to volunteer.
  • How long are you willing to be gone?
  • Utilize Google to help find volunteer opportunities (keep in mind what you want)
  • Apply!

Be mindful when you apply to volunteer that you make sure to make note how much it will cost.  Some companies pay for your plane ticket and hotel stay, and others require you to pay everything on your own.

As you apply, ensure that your resume and application showcase your strengths.  If you’re particularly good at teaching and educating, find ways to emphasize that.  If you’ve ever volunteered (whether it was while you were a nurse), make sure to mention it.

After you submit your application, if you are chosen for an interview, make sure to be enthusiastic and excited about volunteering.  Ask questions about the opportunity and show genuine interest.  You’d be surprised at how far a little bit of interest can go when choosing candidates for the opportunity.

Volunteering as a nurse truly changed my life.  If you’re currently struggling with feeling burned out or like you’re missing something in your career, I urge you to explore this avenue of nursing.


Author bio:


Kylee is a Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) nurse who is passionate about making travel affordable and accessible to nurses. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia. Her hope is to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potential 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.


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