Healthcare Professionals

High Workloads & Understaffing During Travel Assignments


September 14, 2022

As a travel healthcare professional, whether this is your first contract or your 50th, the myth that travelers get the worst patient assignments will undoubtedly come up in conversation. But is it a myth? We are going to break down the thinking behind this topic and get to the root of it, once and for all!

Why Do Hospitals Hire Travel Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals?

To start, let’s talk about why facilities hire travelers. We all know about the increase in demand for travel healthcare professionals since COVID-19, but travelers were around long before and will be around long after, so what are the other reasons?

  1. FMLA/Short-Term Leave/Maternity Coverage – When there’s overlap in core staff’s extended time off, a facility is left with many needs to be filled (you know, when it seems like everyone on your unit got pregnant all at the same time?).
  2. Seasonal Changes Demand for healthcare professionals isn’t the same year-round. Facilities see an influx in patients around fall during the seasonal flu, while there’s a decrease in census during the summertime (except for those firework injuries around the fourth of July!)
  3. Project-Based Needs – Specific instances may require more staff, such as a complex EMR conversion or the addition of a new unit.
  4. Mass Staff Departure – Retirement or employee burnout of experienced staff may quickly require new positions to be filled.
  5. Systemic Shortages of Staff – Bad hiring practices, poor company culture, rural population limitations, and a bad reputation or patient satisfaction scores impact a facility’s ability to properly staff positions.
  6. Teaching Opportunities – A facility may want to augment its staff with experienced travelers to expose new hires to seasoned healthcare professionals that work across many disciplines.

Each one of these reasons has its own unique cause and effect. Before accepting a new contract or dealing with challenges on assignment, ask yourself, “Why am I needed in the first place?” Why a traveler may be needed may also be why they experience a disproportionate workload on the unit.

If you know Coachella happens every year in April, then you can be prepared for travelers to help deal with the influx of patients near the event. But, if travelers are coming in because a facility’s culture is causing perm staff to leave, then your feelings toward that facility may be a little less amicable.

Common Challenges of Travel Assignments

An assignment might not be as bad as your mindset makes it, but other times it really is that bad! These are common challenges reported by travelers that can create anxiety and stress.

High Workloads

The misconception of being told, “you get paid 3x the amount we do, so you should get 3x the amount of work” is inaccurate and often impossible. Staff nurses are already pushed to their limit, so expecting someone else to do 3x the amount of work isn’t feasible while maintaining good patient care and preventing burnout.

Tip: If you and your recruiter agree that you’ll be limited to a specific patient ratio, don’t hesitate to request that this agreement is represented in your contract or statement of work.

Floating to Other Units

Travelers are often the first to float to another unit. Not only are you already out of your comfort zone being in a new facility, but now you are not even on the unit you signed up to work. It might be a unit you have never worked in before, but as a traveler, you should have the knowledge and experience to adapt and learn.

Tip: If you’re not down with floating to other units, make that clear to your recruiter upfront, and again, have that clear in your contract or statement of work.

“Cold Shoulders” from Perm Staff

It’s important to feel confident in your specialty before diving into a travel contract, but even the most seasoned nurse needs help from time to time. Even when you feel like the perm staff might not want you there, don’t ever hesitate to request help when you need it. Allowing perm staff to mentally recuperate as you tackle the worst patient assignments will leave the staff feeling appreciative and more prepared once your contract is over.

Tip: Even when you feel like the perm staff might not want you there, don’t ever hesitate to request help when you need it.

Getting “Thrown to the Wolves”

Travelers often find themselves with a full patient assignment after little (or no) hospital or unit orientation. Everything from hospital policies, coworker names, availability of resources, and codes to the break and supply rooms must be learned on the fly. The first few weeks are the worst as you try and manage this massive learning curve.

Tip: You’ll feel bothersome and inefficient as gather your bearings, but remember that you’re there to help the unit and are already helping to reduce the workload. Take your time, ask for help, and don’t let it overwhelm you.

“Bad” Travel Assignments is Different for Everyone

The notion that travelers receive the worst assignments also heavily depends on your definition of the worst assignment, which is different for everyone.

For instance, many critical care nurses feel most comfortable handling critically ill patients, but stable, less exciting (dare I say, boring?) patients still need to be cared for. Others love having very chatty patients, while someone else may enjoy a less talkative assignment.

As an “outsider”, perm staff may be wary of you because they don’t know you. They don’t know how awesome of a healthcare professional you are so they leave you with the arguably less desirable patient cases that are often time-consuming but not technically difficult.

Once they learn more about you by working alongside you, you’re more likely to receive a workload that better caters to your strengths & abilities.

Remember the Traveler’s Purpose

If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, remind yourself that you’re filling a gap caused by understaffing. If there weren’t challenges, you wouldn’t be viewed as such an asset. Even during the worst “burnout” assignments, you get the opportunity to leave and work elsewhere. During those tougher travel assignments, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s only temporary! That next travel contract will feel so much easier when you have it in the rear view mirror.

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