Strangers in our Midst   

Coping with Staff Resentment

Full time permanent staff nurses are frequently overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them by the increasing acuity of their patients, the escalating paperwork burden, and chronic understaffing. Current estimates are that 8.5 percent of nursing positions nationwide are unfilled.


To help alleviate the severe staffing shortage, many hospitals utilize temporary travelers, nurses and other critically needed allied health professionals. When you, a traveler arrive at your assignment, you will be greeted with relief and gratitude by the beleaguered staff, right? Not always.

Generally, permanent staff are glad to get some much needed help but travelers will all too frequently be met with open or silent resentment. This despite real needs.

No matter how fair minded we think we are, none of us are immune feelings of resentment when our "turf" is intruded upon. Picture the traditional family home consisting of a husband and wife and two kids. Suddenly someone unrelated to them is living with them, sharing the bathroom, sitting down at meals, and sleeping in the house. No matter how welcoming the family, the mere presence of the stranger will create stress and resentment. Resentment will focus on perceived undesirable characteristics: perhaps the way the visitor blows his nose, or hogs someone's favorite chair. These items then become a convenient focus for families to dislike or resent the stranger - Hence the title of this article:  Strangers in our Midst.

Permanent staff working closely take an ownership of their work environment just like a family does their own home. No matter how well we do our jobs, travelers represent an intrusion into this home thus producing stress. It is human nature to resent this intrusion. Resentment can then manifest in many ways unrelated to the real cause.

  Some examples:

     • Travelers are making too much money (or more than us).

     • Why is management doing this to us? Why not hire more staff or pay us more?

     • Travelers probably can't hold a real job and that is why they travel.

     • Traveler job skills are suspect.

And of course any personality based quirks can be a focus for resentment as well: style of dress; different methods of work; complaining; not engaging in small talk with us; thick accent; and so on. Regional and cultural differences will be noticed as well, Northern versus Southern attitudes for example, and personal interaction styles.

Knowing the facts about these misconceptions will help us feel better professionally and personally, but rarely will a direct confrontation with staff members about these issues be constructive. If we do engage staff members in discussions about these topics, we must use the utmost discretion and tact. Remember that that debate seldom wins the hearts of staff, and that these areas of apparent contention are seldom the real reasons behind their resentment in any case.

One of the most common gripes is the perception that travelers are paid more than permanent staff. The truth is it's extraordinarily difficult to compare staff wages with traveler pay. Generally staff will focus just on our hourly pay and the "free" housing we are provided, without contemplation of the many factors that go into total pay. Total pay for staff includes items often absent from the traveler's compensation package: paid holidays, vacation, sick time or PTO, good health insurance, retirement or pension plans, free educational offerings and conferences.

Can travelers even hold a regular job? This is a common staff myth. We are drawn to traveling for many reasons, but poor professional skills or abilities are not one of them. We are scrutinized closely by management and staff, as befits our status as an untested clinical resource. As a result, our performance must be equivalent to the seasoned permanent staff: we do not have the get out of jail free card that a family member (staff) might experience.

On average, travelers develop superior clinical skills, have diverse cultural experience, improve working conditions by sharing efficient practices learned from many facilities, and require far less orientation than newly hired regular staff, to wit: we "hit the ground running."

Touting these attributes aloud certainly won’t win over your colleagues, but by quietly and generously using these talents to relieve some of their burden you may gain their trust and acceptance. Understanding the underlying reasons for any resentment will help the traveler build a healthy empathy for their stressed colleagues. Regardless, travelers must shed resentment like ducks shed water. Empathy and understanding make this challenging task much more palatable. 

Remember also that we are at the facility because staff was already stressed by short staffing and often poor management before our arrival. Stress is stress no matter the source and can be the proximate cause of both predictable and unpredictable reactions to our presence. In no way should negative staff attitudes and behavior be taken personally. Consummate professionalism is the key to successfully integrating into the healthcare facility.

It is critical to understand that we are adding to the stress by our mere presence in a facility. With this knowledge, we can empathize with our colleagues and help reduce tensions. This leads to mutual respect, a better working environment and thus better patient care.


Published July 25, 2007 by the editorial staff of PanTravelers.

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