TWO YEARS AGO, at age 59½, I thought I was on the verge of taking a major step toward retirement. At the time, my usual zest for my work as a physical therapist was waning. Though I don’t think the quality of my patient care suffered, I found it took more effort to maintain the energy needed to complete a day at the clinic, and concentrating on work became tougher.
In addition to the tension building on the inside, I was also feeling external pressures. One concern was the care my wife and I were providing to our families. Over the past decade, we’ve become intricately involved in the lives of several family members who need our help because of age or illness. We love them dearly, and don’t consciously begrudge the time we give them. Still, anything that stretches time thin can fray nerves and shorten tempers.
Further stress came from the pandemic. We were all affected by COVID-19 in some way, from the annoyance of the toilet paper shortage to the heart-rending loss of a loved one. The social narrative about the disease took on a surrealistic life of its own. I finally stopped discussing it with nearly all except my wife, and I won’t comment on it here. I can’t deny, however, that the pandemic profoundly affected how I felt about my job.
My experience is hardly an anomaly. Howard, a coworker, notes that the pandemic magnified the stress inherent in a health care career. His opinion is supported by a study led by researchers from Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It discovered some 50% of workers from all areas of health care reported an increase in stress during the pandemic. The highest levels of job-related stress, which can cause an occupational phenomenon termed burnout, were reported among nurses and other clinical staff.
Burnout can lead people to leave jobs, and the health care industry hasn’t escaped the exodus. A report from Definitive Healthcare highlights the significant shortage of clinical staff caused by resignations and early retirements in 2021, including 22,000 physical therapists.
My home state of Georgia is one of five states hit hardest by shortages. Nurses were so scarce at my small hospital that roughly a third of patient rooms were unavailable due to a lack of staff. On weekends, instead of my usual weekday duty at the outpatient rehab clinic, I assisted in the acute care hospital, providing treatment to patients housed in the emergency department for multiple days because there was no other accommodation for them.
In summer 2021, I considered contributing to the shortage of physical therapists by trimming my work hours. I like to believe I’m an independent thinker, and perhaps even instinctively go against the flow. But I know at times I’m tempted to follow the herd. I don’t know how much pandemic stress contributed to my itchy feet, as compared to the stress from my personal life, but I know it was part of the force pushing me toward retirement. Although my wife works just a few hours each month as a physical therapist, she was thinking of racing me to the exit.
Even away from the clinic, thoughts of chasing other interests started creeping in. I didn’t imagine full retirement, but I dreamt of busy days at home working in my garden, playing with family and friends, or catching up on reading. I was acutely aware of the time I didn’t have because it belonged to my employer, and I realized the money I received was beginning to lose its luster.
Rising pressure must find a way out, or else it damages the vessel trying to contain it. My pressure-relief valve was created by shifting additional money from stocks to short-term bonds, to boost the amount already set aside in conservative investments. This move provided income protection for my wife and me in the event I decided to cut my work hours just when the market decided to drop, thus freeing us from the need to sell stocks at depressed prices.
Today, two years later, I’m still working fulltime, but in a different frame of mind. Why? For starters, the strain on my mind and my time has eased. The overwhelming flood of patients from the pandemic has settled down to a more manageable flow. Frontline health care workers are still dealing with the fatigue caused by staffing shortages, but the added apprehension that accompanied an unknown disease has dissipated. For now, COVID-19 has become just one more familiar hazard that can make a hospital an unhealthy place to work.
In addition, a change in our family circumstances has cut down on both brain time and actual hours devoted to that responsibility. My wife’s anxiety is visibly reduced, which eases my mind as well.
More important, our cash and bonds gave us the courage to face the possibility of cutting back on work hours due to need or desire. Knowing that I continue to work fulltime by choice, rather than by necessity, takes a load off my mind. Though a little wounded by inflation and rising interest rates, our stockpile of safe money remains substantial and comforting.
With our minds preoccupied by uncertainty over the future source of our income, we didn’t use our cash to make big buys of cheaper stocks last summer. Contrast this to early 2020, when we were chasing dropping share prices at the beginning of the pandemic. We have, however, continued to commit 25% of our income to purchasing stock-index mutual funds through our employer’s 403(b) and our IRAs, plus we have the company match and bonus money going into my 403(b). We also continue to invest our health savings account money in stock funds. Right now, stocks account for about 74% of our retirement savings.
The upshot: We haven’t needed the conservative investments we set aside two years ago. It could be argued we wasted the potential for growth by keeping money out of the stock market. I might be persuaded to lean that way during a weak moment, but I have few regrets. That would be like regretting the insurance premiums we’ve paid for claims we haven’t needed to make. The stock market growth we missed is the premium we’ve paid for the peace of mind we’ve gained.
Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.