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Put Me in, Coach: Travel Nurses Tell How to Inspire Their Best Performance

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By Marcia Faller, PhD, RN, chief clinical officer, AMN Healthcare

Why do some RNs choose to work as travel nurses, and what do they gain from their experiences? What kinds of challenges do they face? And, most importantly from the facility perspective, what can help them achieve their best performance and make travel assignments more successful for the caregivers, employers and patients?

It turns out that the things that inspire travel nurses to do their best mirror the things that inspire staff nurses to excel--the tools to do their jobs and treatment that tells them they are part of the team.

The perspective of a travel nurse  

The use of travel nurses has become more common in recent years as a strategic solution to census fluctuations, facility expansions, computer conversion projects and other temporary staffing needs, but little research has been done regarding these contingent workers. So I recently collaborated with some fellow nursing researchers--Jane Georges and Cynthia Connelly from the University of San Diego, and Michael Gates from San Diego State University--to learn more about these nurses we call “travelers” and their on-the-job experiences.

After the invitation and selection process, we conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 17 nurses, including 14 women and three men. Each was currently working or had recently worked as a travel nurse in a hospital inpatient setting. The average respondent had more than nine years of nursing experience and close to five years in travel nursing. The full study results were published in the July issue of Nursing Management.

Like many temporary workers, we found that these travel nurses were looking for flexibility and to find more satisfaction than in their current jobs; they also wanted to learn more, gain different professional experiences and interact with different people and cultures. In addition, many felt the traveler lifestyle could help them experience new places or try a range of employers in order to find one that would be a good match.

These nurses were well qualified and devoted to patient care, and they knew that their primary role as a traveler was to help out with the facility’s current situation, whatever it was. They understood they might not get the best schedule and might have to float more often than the staff nurses, but that was fine.

They did, however, expect to be treated as professionals who could contribute to the facility’s and unit’s goals. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case.

How to help travel nurses perform at their best  

Based on their actual experiences, the nurses in our study offered a number of insights about what facilities can do--and practices they should avoid--to support their travel nurses and receive their best in return.

The Right Way: The facilities where travel nurses had positive experiences did many things well, starting at the very beginning of the assignment. The hospital presented a welcoming attitude, provided an appropriate orientation--in both duration and content--and paired the traveler with a “buddy” on staff who could help them access important resources. They also included travel nurses in unit social functions, in-service training, continuing education, and nurse recognitions, and gave them manageable patient assignments.

Even the little things made a difference, like asking travelers’ opinions on unit matters, giving them a hospital e-mail address, and making sure that nursing leaders took the time to introduce themselves.

This kind of treatment helped travelers feel like they fit in with the team, and to have more ownership and pride in their jobs. Those looking for a longer-term home were also more likely to feel that this might be a place where they could stay.

The Wrong Way: When travel nurses had bad experiences at an assignment, they described some serious problems and issues: lack of management support, unorganized scheduling, lack of equity in patient assignments, and not having access to information and resources to the same extent as permanent nurses. In some cases the travelers even felt unwanted, being treated like “second-class citizens” or “just a warm body.”

The travel nurses felt that their poor treatment may be indicative of other management issues that have an impact on a hospital’s ability to attract and retain its nurses. Even in the situations that were more difficult, these nurses showed their resiliency and dedication, saying that they could “manage anything for 13 weeks.”

But they truly wanted to make a positive impact, and not to be left standing on the sidelines.

Is there anything that your organization might improve to get the best out of your temporary workforce? You’ll notice that the recommendations from travelers are fairly simple and do not require a major investment of time or money, but they can offer huge returns. Your staffing agency consultant should be able to offer additional recommendations.

Our research showed that nurses who choose to work as travel nurses can find many personal and professional rewards. Similarly, facilities can benefit from learning more about their motivations, talents and skills--and by treating them like important members of the team.

For more information on the study, read “On the Move: Exploring the Perceptions of Travel Nurses,” Journal of Nursing Management, published July 2012, or contact me directly at

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