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Tips for floaters

For most people, the term floating evokes images of soaring among marshmallow-soft clouds or bobbing weightlessly in a warm pool or tropical ocean. But for nurses, it holds an entirely different meaning. Floating implies leaving one’s trusted colleagues and the familiar routine of one’s usual unit for unfamiliar territory. It’s probably safe to say most nurses detest floating because it forces them to leave their comfort zone—and quite possibly their area of expertise.

Yet floating can be an opportunity to experience another practice area, expand your horizon, break out of your daily routine, and learn something new. In fact, something you learn while floating to the emergency department could inform your practice when you return to your regular unit.

Know your limits

I won’t deny that floating has the potential to set you up for a troubling experience. Don’t accept an assignment that’s beyond your level of competency and could place a patient in jeopardy. The buck stops with you when it comes to protecting your license. And only you can determine your level of competence and whether you can safely perform the tasks required on any unit to which you may be floated.

Make sure you’re familiar with the positions your state board of nursing and nursing association have taken on floating. Also read up on your facility’s floating policy and any contractual agreements that address floating. For instance, if you refuse a floating assignment, is there a form you need to complete? Procedural steps you must take?

Face the unknown

Okay—so you’re not happy about being floated to another patient-care unit. But you’re comfortable you can provide safe, competent nursing care in that environment.

So how can you make it through the next shift? First, speak with the charge nurse and share any concerns about that particular unit and patient population. This will help the charge nurse plan your patient assignment so you operate within your competence level, while allowing her to make the best use of your skills during that shift.


The next step is to think FLOAT!

  • Find a resource person. Ask the charge nurse for the name of an experienced nurse who might be willing to act as a resource for you during that shift. This nurse can be your touchstone while you’re there.
  • Lower your stress level. You feel put upon and apprehensive about how the shift will go; your pulse quickens and your breathing gets shallower. So stop and take a few moments to focus on your breathing. Inhale deeply, filling your abdomen with air, and then slowly breathe out. Also try repeating to yourself, “I know I’ll get through this with flying colors.”
  • Orient yourself to the unit. Ideally, a staff member should show you where everything is and explain the usual routine for the new unit. If that’s not possible, take a few minutes to orient yourself. For instance, where are the policy and procedures manuals kept? Where’s the crash cart? Do you need a password for the computers?
  • Ask questions and ask for help. Don’t go it alone and try to struggle through the shift, even if the staff is standoffish. It’s not worth a potential back injury (yours!) or a misstep or mistake. Ditto if you have never performed a particular task or procedure or are unsure how to do it safely and competently. When in doubt, ask for help.
  • Take 5 minutes to review your assignment. Anticipate where you might need help. A little planning can help you a lot and makes it easier for others to help you as well. Ask your resource person or some other nurse for help with that task. And offer to help that person with some task as well, even if it’s just to lend a pair of extra hands.

Check your attitude at the door

You know the drill: You float to the designated unit and find yourself assigned the most belligerent patients or a nasty, time-consuming dressing change. An unfortunate reality is that some nurses can be mean-spirited toward other nurses, especially those who float onto their unit. Many have been on the receiving end of this behavior at one time or another. (See Instant karma can get you by clicking on the PDF icon above.)

This behavior occurs when people feel powerless and burned out. They see themselves as low on the power ladder. So when a colleague who seems even lower comes along, they think they’re justified in being rude or thoughtless toward her. They don’t see the float nurse as someone just like them.

<p?To decrease such behavior, or better yet prevent it, make the staff see you as a person—not some anonymous float who breezes in and out, never to be seen again. Smile and introduce yourself to each staff member.

Your own attitude plays a role, too. If you walk onto the unit telegraphing the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” staff will find it much easier to dump on you. Conversely, if you walk onto the unit projecting the attitude that you’re there to help, you’ll be received in a totally different way.

If you have a good experience on a particular float unit, try to float there again. This will help create a sense of continuity and let you further develop working relationships with the staff there. You’ll feel more familiar with the unit and less stressed, and the staff will think of you as one of them.

Floating doesn’t have to be a nightmare. You’ll probably never confuse floating with soaring in marshmallow-soft clouds. But with an open mind and the FLOAT plan, you can make it through the shift with flying colors, experience nursing in another practice area, and expand your area of expertise.

Selected references

Gobis L. The perils of floating: when nurses are directed to work outside their areas of expertise. AJN. 2001;101(9):78. http://journals
When_nurses_are_directed.31.aspx. Accessed January 25, 2010.

Kane-Urrabazo C. Accept or refuse? Learn the legal risks and responsibilities of each option so you can proceed wisely. Nursing. 2004;
34(6):64. http://journals.lww.com/nursing/Abstract/2004/06000/
Should_you_dive_into_that_float_assignment_.48.aspx. Accessed January 25, 2010.

New York State Nurses Association. Position statement: Floating. www.nysna.org/practice/positions/floating.htm. Accessed January 25, 2010.

Joan C. Borgatti is the owner of Borgatti Communications in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which provides writing, editing, and coaching services. Her website is www.joanborgatti.com.


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