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Understanding the Benefits and Risks of Floating Between Units

Floating is a way to reallocate staffing resources when another area is understaffed. Hospital management is under pressure to float their nurses from low census areas to cover patient needs rather than paying nurses for overtime. Sometimes float assignments are unavoidable. You may have questions like “Is floating to other units in the hospital safe?” and “what are the advantages and disadvantages?” It’s important to know your legal rights and obligations as an RN to protect your patients and your license.  

Considering The Challenges

The disadvantages of floating to a new unit are obvious and we have all felt it – the feeling of inadequacy when a patient asks a question that you don’t know or the frustration of spending time looking for supplies or forgetting codes to med rooms and supply closets. Floating makes many nurses feel anxious, stressed and disorganized. Some nurses argue that floating is potentially unsafe and could compromise patient safety as well as their nursing license.1

Nurses are held responsible for their actions and will face discipline by the State Board of Nursing for failure to act with competence in their assignments while floating. Before accepting your assignment, make sure that you have the skills, knowledge, and competency to accomplish the task. If the assignment is not safe or you lack the competency, let the charge nurse know that you are happy to help, but that you cannot accept the current assignment due to your limitations or lack of training.

Seeing the Opportunities

While floating between units frequently presents multiple challenges, there are some advantages. Perhaps this is not a popular topic, but I personally have experienced some of the benefits of floating. I have acquired new skills; worked in specialty areas I would’ve never seen, and formed a tighter bond with nursing staff throughout the hospital. After floating to the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, I realized I was ready for a change and left the ICU for greener pastures. Who knows what you might learn, or experience while floating. It’s a great cure for boredom and a chance to meet your next mentor or friend. 

Floating can be difficult, so next time you encounter this situation, here are a few tips to hopefully ease the discomfort of the process: 

  1. Start by asking the unit-specific requirements for charting and routines
  2. Introduce yourself and offer to help
  3. Smile and have a positive attitude
  4. Remember you are not alone. Use the charge nurse and support staff as a resource3

Your attitude while floating will greatly affect your day and how staff and patients respond to you. It’s a choice to be positive, and I believe a better option for an optimal outcome. Remember that the experience of floating rests mostly on the receiving department. When someone floats to your unit, make them feel welcomed, orient them to the unit, give them the less challenging assignments, and express your gratitude for them being there.

1 O’Connor K, Dugan LJ. Addressing floating and patient safety. RN Nursing  February 2017-Vol 47-Issue2-page 57-58 doi: 10.1097/01
2 O’Connor K, Dugan LJ. Addressing floating and patient safety. RN Nursing  February 2017-Vol 47-Issue2-page 57-58 doi: 10.1097/01
3 Rowell K. Helpful-tips-to-help-you-survive-floating-to-another-unit/. July 13, 2016

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nurse jolinda avatarAbout the Author: Jolinda Chrisman, RN is a guest writer for Flexwise Health and an ICU Critical Care RN in a Bone Marrow Transplant Unit working for the VA hospital.

Christina Registered Nurse
"I prefer to look (for assignments) myself... to be more hands-on in the search"
"I would rather take personal responsibility when job hunting rather than waiting for an agency to call me."
“As a registry (Per Diem) nurse, I make more per hour.”

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