Float Pool Nurse: The Pros and Cons of Being a Roving RN

Three RNs walk down a hall with two doctors in conversation

To the average person, the term “float pool” might sound like it has something to do with reclining on an inflatable raft and enjoying a tropical drink. But, in the nursing world, working in the float pool is anything but that lazy-river life.

This think-on-your feet nursing role can be a powerful source of experience, excitement and skill for your career. Even so, as with any nursing position, there are some definitive pros and cons to working as a float pool nurse.

The term “float pool” has been around for over 40 years. A nursing float pool is a ready group of staff hired specifically to send around to healthcare facilities to help fill sudden shortages as they arise.1

Since under-staffed nursing units have direct impacts on patient care outcomes, the practice of hiring and maintaining a nursing float pool is now common in the field, according to Nursing Management.2

It makes sense, if you think about it. Instead of scrambling every time a unit nurse calls in sick, goes on vacation or leaves the position, healthcare systems with a float pool can just rotate a versatile group of nurses from place to place to help fill the gaps.

This can also reduce costs as well as staffing shortages since hospitals can avoid overtime (and the increased risk of nursing burnout and turnover if overtime becomes mandatory). Both of those outcomes are expensive.

And, instead of rushing to get contractors or newcomers up to speed, hospitals can assume their skilled float pool nurses will be adept at jumping into action on multiple units with a solid familiarity of the employer’s systems.

It’s easy to see why employers would be a fan of float pools. But what does it mean for float nurses? If you are looking into nursing, you might wonder if working as a float pool nurse could be a good option. Let’s dive in.

What is a float pool nurse?

Float pool nurses are nurses who “float” or move around between different units and departments to meet staffing needs. This means they not only need to be great nurses, but also quick learners who can adapt to the unique needs of each department they step into.

“In all technicalities, float pool nursing isn’t a permanent position,” says Christine Kingsley, APRN and health and wellness director of the Lung Institute. She explains that it’s closer to freelancing or working as a contractor.

The reason many people choose to work as a float pool nurse, according to Kingsley, is that there’s typically a financial benefit compared to nurses who work in a single unit. Since the role has such unique demands, healthcare companies will often try to attract float nurses with higher pay rates, added benefits or other incentives.

Float pool nurse vs. travel nurse

While the job of a float pool nurse is similar to the role of travel nurse, float pool nurses typically work within a specific medical center or healthcare system. Though travel nurses can also float, float nurses don’t typically need to travel. And not all float pool nurses will have the same kind of role, either.

Float pool nurses can have different schedule structures depending on where they work. Kingsley says every healthcare institution is different and will utilize their float pool in different ways.

For example, at Cedars-Sinai, float pool nurses float between:

  • Medical & Surgical, Telemetry and PCU
  • Women's Services
  • Neonatal Care, Pediatrics and PICU
  • Emergency/Trauma Services

Float nursing often means working in multiple units, stepping into different patient care teams and generally being ready for anything.

As a float pool nurse, you may know which hours you’ll work in a given week or which hospital or healthcare facility you'll work in. But you may not know the details about your shifts.

“Generally, float pool nurses are given structured mandates for their assignments, and should there be any changes, they're expected to comply and adapt,” Kingsley says.

A float pool nurse job description for Mayo Clinic® involves supporting professional nursing practice across practice settings – and across the continuum of care – to meet the needs of patients and their families. They describe their float pool as a “unique department comprised of small specialty groups of highly skilled experts that support patient care throughout the hospital.”

You might find unique opportunities to develop your skill areas depending on the healthcare facility. Mayo notes that their float pool nurses can cross-train in different specialty departments like the birth center and emergency department.

6 pros and cons to being a float pool nurse

Every nursing role has its pros and cons, including the roles that step into multiple roles and specialties at once! Read on to hear some of the perks and challenges specific to float pool nursing.

Pro: Exposure to many different areas of nursing

This benefit is one of the biggest reasons to consider working as a float pool nurse. “It allows you to see and experience a variety of nursing specialties such as CVICU, Neuro ICU, CCU, MICU, SICU and transplant,” says Colby Snyder, RN and travel nurse under contract at UCLA Health. Snyder has a foundation in critical care and loves that she can go deeper into specific areas in other units.

“In Neuro ICU you can learn more about care for post-stroke, stroke codes, using and setting up EVDs, bedside procedures like burrow holes, and so on.” Snyder says floating to a cardiovascular unit can teach you about mobilizing patients, working with wires and ECMO equipment.

If you are interested in learning more about how nursing in each specialty works, float pool nursing can be the ideal way to explore.

Or if you are interested in nursing leadership someday, a nursing float pool can give you incredible insights into the inner workings of your healthcare facility. Since float pool nurses get such broad exposure to the larger nursing systems they work under, they gain a valuable perspective.

Con: No control over your assignments

“The most difficult aspect of working as a float pool nurse is the total lack of control over which assignments to work on,” Kingsley says, adding that it’s likely not a good career option for someone who prefers lots of structure.

Every nurse has some tasks they prefer and others they’d prefer to avoid, and some nursing roles can allow you to gravitate to things you like best, but float pool nursing doesn't offer much room to pick and choose. “Float pooling requires you to be ready to accept any task,” Kingsley says. When you work in this critical role, your job is to support patient care wherever you can.

Pro: Your skills will get a power boost

“Working as a float pool nurse provides extensive medical knowledge and experience,” Kingsley says. “Being a float pool nurse typically trains you to be at your highest level possible, leaving you competent enough to know what to do in any medical situation.”

The unique opportunities of each different healthcare facility or unit you float into involve a wide range of cases with different medical needs, according to Kingsley. “It helps sharpen your skills and keeps you on your toes, which improves your overall performance.” If you decide to move into a different nursing role, your time as a float nurse will be a powerful foundation to build on.

Con: Less opportunity to work alongside the same people each day

While some float pool nurses may develop their own camaraderie and support networks, nurses who fill in on other units each shift wind up seeing a lot of new faces. Snyder says lacking a relationship with the charge nurse or the team members can make it harder to understand how they operate and who communicates with whom.

That lack of familiarity may mean you’ll need to put in a little extra effort to ensure your time with a unit goes well.

“I usually show up a little early to my shift, and I’ll sit and read through my patients’ charts to get a solid background before shift change, introduce myself, and ask questions,” Snyder says.

Pro: A rich and varied medical network

Float pool nurses might arguably have some of the best medical networks in the healthcare world. As you spend more time floating, you’ll start to get to know people in each of the units you join. Kingsley says the wide range of professional connections you build in this role is one of the largest benefits of working as a float pool nurse.

“Building relationships with other healthcare providers from different medical units help enrich the overall nursing experience, keeping one perpetually-motivated and preventing burnout,” Kingsley says.

Con: You have to think on your feet a lot

“One challenge to float pool is that not all hospitals have mirrored units, meaning not all units look the same,” Snyder says. “If your patient is crashing or the doctors need certain equipment for procedures, you need to learn where things are quickly.”

Float pool nurses need to bring their A game every day, and while that’s true of everyone in nursing to some extent, float pool nurses might not have the benefit of familiarity with their surroundings or the normal procedure for the unit they are jumping in on. Snyder says it’s best to have a flexible, “roll with the punches” attitude.

Interested in becoming a float pool nurse?

Float pool nursing is probably not a good role for people who crave consistency. But if you like work that gives you fresh sources of excitement and new knowledge, you might just love working in a float pool. And since healthcare employers understand what float nursing is like, this kind of experience can be an awesome addition to your resume.

“Nurses in this role must be exceptionally dedicated and extra attentive,” Kingsley says. Float pool nursing can feel fast-paced and even chaotic at times while you embrace the learning curve of each unit you float to. But, for the right person, this exciting role can be the perfect way to enjoy more areas of nursing than one traditional role would allow.

If becoming a float nurse sounds like it could be for you, you’ll want to become a registered nurse first. Check out our article “ How to Become an RN Fast: Potential Paths to Pursue” for an overview of your potential pathways into registered nursing.

Mayo Clinic is a registered trademark of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

1Smith, ML. “Resource team: A Staffing Solution” Nursing Management, 1981. [accessed January 2023] https://journals.lww.com/nursingmanagement/Citation/1981/11000/Resource_Team__A_Staffing_Solution__A.14.aspx

2Straw, CN. “Engagement and retention in float pools: Keeping the team above water” Nursing Management, 2018. [accessed January 2023] https://journals.lww.com/nursingmanagement/fulltext/2018/10000/engagement_and_retention_in_float_pools__keeping.7.aspx

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

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