5 Challenges You Might Face As An ICU Travel Nurse—and How To Overcome Them

Nurses working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) are responsible for caring for some of the most unstable and critically ill patients in their facility. This type of nursing is not for the faint of heart, as these patients require the highest acuity of care. ICU nurses need a powerful combination of skills, knowledge, and proactive thinking to care for the most fragile of patients. As a traveler, you will have to take care of new patients with different needs every 13 weeks and it can’t always be easy.

Becoming a ICU Travel Nurse

The first step to becoming an ICU nurse is to complete a bachelor’s degree program at a school accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). After completing this program, you must pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council Licensure Examination Program (NCLEX), which is required to become licensed as a registered nurse in all 50 states.

ICU Travel Nurse Salary

The average salary for an ICU Travel Nurse ranges between $25K-$35K per month depending on experience level and location. The median annual wage for this job is around $30K.
ICU Travel Nurses typically work 40 hours per week but may be required to work more than 40 hours per week during peak seasons (e.g., holidays).

Whether you are new to nursing or an experienced ICU nurse wanting to travel, here are five challenges you might encounter and how you can overcome them.

1. Little to No Prep Time

When you first arrive at your assignment, an orientation is usually held to help you get a feel for your unit. Travel ICU nurses often have to hit the ground running and start their shifts as soon as they can. Because the health of ICU patients can change at any moment, nurses have to be ready for the unexpected and act instantaneously. Since travelers won’t be around for long, orientation can range from as little as four hours to only one full day. If the demand for nurses on the floor is high, the training may take place on the go. Be sure to take notes and ask questions to prevent patient and staff harm.

2. Floating

As a traveler, you will float to different units. A short-staffed facility could float you to several units and only have a four-hour orientation for each. Although it can get frustrating, keep in mind that you are there to help and should do so to the best of your ability. Ask upfront about the floating policy to get an idea about how it works. Most facilities won’t float an ICU nurse to OB, for example, but always be sure!

3. No Breaks

Caring for ICU patients requires constant focus to ensure their safety and manage obstacles as they arise. You must possess incredible physical and emotional stamina to keep up with the pace of the job from beginning to end. Since the stakes are so high, nurses have to stay involved with their patients without taking a break for themselves. Drink water as frequently as you can to stay hydrated. Also, keep healthy snacks ready at all times so you can maintain your energy level for your patients. Find at least a few minutes alone to compose yourself and ward off fatigue.

4. Compassion Fatigue

Although physical fatigue can be a challenge to overcome, compassion fatigue can also be a problem as well. It is easy for ICU nurses to become emotionally attached to patients due to the constant, close contact. However, when patients do not make it, nurses can be severely affected, as they are often a shoulder to cry on or a confidant. Compassion fatigue, sometimes called secondary traumatic stress (STS), can affect most nurses and other professions but does not last forever. Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Hopelessness: Repeatedly losing patients can lead to feeling as if the constant hard work being done to help stabilize patients is ultimately fruitless. This is not the case, but the feeling can be powerful. 
  • Negative Attitude: Constantly being exposed to death can result in habitual pessimism. 
  • Insomnia: Many ICU nurses who experience compassion fatigue can have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. 

If you start to feel compassion fatigue, find a support system to help you get through this tough time.

5. Burnout

Burnout can occur after working too much or too hard. When a nurse is feeling too overwhelmed, it can lead to chronic stress that can manifest itself in various ways, like insomnia or a loss of appetite. Multiple factors can lead to feeling burnout, including exposure to death, grieving family members, or pure exhaustion. The best way to combat burnout is to acknowledge it and take action immediately. How you feel can affect how you interact with your patients and staff.

Not everyone can manage the hectic pace of the ICU floor, but the experience is rewarding. Take a look at our job board for the latest travel nurse jobs in the top travel nurse locations!

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