Leading for success

Sept. 28, 2020
Boosting quality, morale during trying times

During these uncertain times, when worry and anxiety are high and staff morale can be quite low, it is especially important for healthcare professionals to take care of themselves and their teams. We have all seen the inspiring ways so many healthcare professionals, including those in Sterile Processing (SP), continue to rise above to take care of their customers and patients. But when stressful work environments are coupled with the challenge of being physically distanced from friends, family members and colleagues, it’s understandable how it can take a toll on morale.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable for everyone. What should SP leaders do – and how can they keep themselves and their teams focused on their important roles, while also coping with the feelings that change and ambiguity often bring? What follows are some top tips:

Take care of yourself first

A leader can only support the team and model resiliency if he/she acknowledges and manages his/her own stress and anxiety. Taking time to understand one’s own feelings and identify and address emotions is essential. It may be necessary to briefly distance oneself from others to make a conscious decision about how one’s actions can stay in step with personal values. Consider asking these questions: Who do I want to be in this situation? If the leader wants to model collaboration, for example, he or she can ask, “How can I help employees feel more like they’re part of the team?”

Acknowledge the uncertainty

Our current experience is very real and can’t be ignored, denied or repressed without consequence. Although a leader’s intention may be to keep the team focused on tasks to distract from the uncertainty, bottling emotions and expecting employees to do the same won’t help. Some may feel uncomfortable voicing their feelings or concerns, so it can be helpful to directly address the issue rather than jumping straight to how he/she is feeling. A leader might acknowledge that things seem chaotic and unpredictable at the moment; however, it’s important not to dwell on the negative, which could prolong discomfort and low morale for the team. Acknowledge how people are feeling, but then move on to discuss how the team needs to work together to meet critical goals.

Encourage self-compassion

Some people may wonder how others are keeping it together while they’re struggling to stay focused and productive. Everyone reacts to stress and change differently; however, self-compassion and open conversations can help normalize emotions and reduce stress. If anyone on the team is feeling stressed, they should be encouraged to admit it. Talking about previous situations in which anxiety was felt (and, ideally, overcome) can also help remind the team that challenges arise, but don’t endure.

Ask employees what they need

SP leaders should consider having one-on-one conversations with their employees to allow them to describe what they’re feeling. Leaders should aim to better understand what their employees think and feel, even if they don’t agree or feel the same about the situation. Empathy forms the basis of trust and allows the team to move into problem-solving mode. Dialog could be something like, “It seems like a tough time. What would be most helpful for you at the moment? Let’s problem-solve together, so we can stay focused on your critical tasks.” Employees may benefit from extra guidance on how to reduce distractions, prioritize their work or stay flexible during uncertain times.

Focus on what can be controlled

Research shows that even small rituals and positive, team-led changes can reduce stress and improve performance. If circumstances allow, a leader might give employees more flexibility in their work schedule, for example (as long as they plan in advance and understand that performance expectations remain the same). Leaders should focus on their individual and organizational values as well. Even when some power and choices are being taken away, a person still gets to choose who they want to be. It’s important to help team members clarify what’s important, too. Consider asking, “How do we want to act during these times? How do we want to treat one another?” Employees might state they want to continue delivering a quality product to customers, while being respectful and kind to one another, for example. Reaffirming goals can help the team stay grounded in a shared sense of purpose.

Reduce secondary traumatic stress

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is the name for emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. This can certainly be witnessed in healthcare professionals, who are more closely tied to the pandemic and its impact on patients, families and fellow teammates; however, STS can impact anyone. It is important to learn the physical and mental symptoms (e.g., fatigue, illness, fear, withdrawal and guilt), allow time for the individual and their family to recover, and encourage employees to ask for help if the pandemic is overwhelming them with worry and making it more difficult to care for their family or serve customers and patients.

Encourage and model self-care

Sleep, exercise and good nutrition are proven stress relievers and productivity enhancers. Encouraging all employees to take care of themselves can be as simple as encouraging them to take walks outside during breaks, bringing in healthful snacks for the break room, or teaching the team about mindful breathing. Self-care should also be promoted off the clock. Managers could consider putting tips in writing and sharing them with employees. Tips could include limiting the amount of time spent watching/listening to the news and setting aside more time for family, personal hobbies (reading, gardening, etc.) and outdoor activities performed at a safe distance.

About the Author

Nicholas Schmitz | President

Nicholas Schmitz is President of Schmitz Consulting LLC. He holds two Master degrees in organization development and change management, and project management, and is a certified Project Management Professional and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.