Laboratories have been experiencing a workforce shortage that has only gotten worse in recent years, thanks to the pandemic and many pathologists and laboratory professionals retiring from the profession. Burnout is rampant among pathologists and medical laboratory scientists. Can creating a laboratory culture that promotes and sustains wellness, creativity, and engagement help mitigate some of these problems? Experts suggest they can.
Dr. Darryl Elzie, PsyD, and Laboratory Quality Coordinator for Sentara Health, says that one of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is that companies that have been historically resistant to implementing wellness initiatives now see the importance of employee well-being. “They’re really open to it now. And now that the workforce is scrambling for workers, employees have more choices and quality of life is more important.”
Lotte Mulder, PhD, American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Director of Leadership and Empowerment, adds, “After the last two years, we understand that wellness is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
How can laboratories build a wellness culture within their institutions? Here are some tips to get started.
“Wellness starts the same way you build culture in the workplace—top down,” Dr. Elzie says. “You have to have administrative support for any type of program that you’re going to try and institute or implement change in an organization.”
While that can sometimes be hard to translate to the c-suite, particularly older generations who are less accustomed to prioritizing employee wellness, Dr. Elzie says, “We need to have that conversation.”
This may require reminding leadership of the costs of turnover and onboarding new people. “You have that loss of knowledge when you have people leaving, and you’re continuously training new people. You’re just going to be paying for more people. Can you afford that?” Dr. Elzie asks.
Laboratory managers and leadership can learn a lot from the bottom up too, Dr. Mulder adds. “The newer generations, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are a lot more vocal and many are going to therapy. They’re talking about feelings, it’s very open and they are removing some of the remaining stigmas around mental health through that openness. We can all learn something from that.”
Creating a culture of wellness begins with connecting with the people you’re trying to serve, Dr. Mulder says, and getting their feedback. “When wellness programs, or really any initiative fails, it’s because we’re making assumptions about our staff and the people we serve.”
Supporting wellness can take many forms, Dr. Mulder explains. “Encourage feedback. Create these open environments so people feel comfortable speaking up. Have focus groups, brainstorm sessions, where you listen to everybody’s input.”
It’s important to recognize that different people have different needs, Dr. Elzie and Dr. Mulder agree. Dr. Mulder points out that it’s crucial to consider multiple demographics, all of whom have different needs from each other, such as underrepresented employees, parents of young children, employees who belong to LGBTQ+ groups, and people with varying abilities, to name a few.
It also means trying to take a “trauma-informed” approach, which takes into account that people bring their pain and trauma to work with them, and sometimes need space to express or deal with, or simply be acknowledged in their suffering, Dr. Mulder explains.
World events, such as a pandemic and war, both of which are currently affecting people around the globe, also take a toll. Dr. Elzie adds, “We have to be aware that things happening in our nation affect individuals on a personal level. How do our lab managers address that for employees? Having a strong relationship with the lab manager is so important.”
When we think of incorporating wellness into work cultures, often what comes to mind are yoga, meditation, or other practices that help heal body and mind. That’s only part of a wellness culture, however. Dr. Mulder points out wellness can include financial literacy training, intellectual wellness, occupational wellness, and even environmental wellness.
The point is: wellness is what works for a laboratory’s specific staff.
Dr. Elzie adds, “You don’t want to get into what’s trendy or trending; you want to get what’s real and effects change in people’s lives.”
Of course, this comes with the caveat that while seeking feedback from everyone is crucial, it’s also important to recognize that “Wellness is so individualized that you can’t create wellness initiatives for 5,000 employees. You have to partly create [programs for] the masses,” Dr. Mulder says. “Or create a list of options for employees to choose from to create their own complete program.” “You could even create a pop-up wellness room that changes every couple of week: One week with plants and purified air, the next week meditation music and some cushions.”
There are huge business benefits to a wellness culture, as well. The more inclusive and diverse a work environment is, the more wellness a laboratory will likely see. And greater wellness means better retention. “If your employees are happy, if they feel that their whole selves can show up fully and it’s respected, appreciated, and welcomed, they’re going to stay,” Dr. Mulder says.
The c-suite needs to understand that, “It’s cheaper to invest in a culture of wellness than it is to spend more money onboarding new people,” Dr. Elzie says.
For many people work is like a second family, Dr. Mulder says. “So just as we would care about our family members and friends outside of work, we should care an equal amount about the people at work, at least providing them with resources so that they can take care of themselves. The happier people are, the more appreciated they feel, the better results they’re going to give.”
Wellness can also incorporate concepts such as creativity and engagement. Dr. Mulder says these three ideas, “sit in the same house. There’s a hallway that connects them, even though they’re very different concepts.”
Creativity can translate to the medical field as well, she clarifies. “Even though there are very strict policies and procedures, there’s still a lot of creativity on the outer edges of pathology and laboratory medicine. If you take a look at the images of slides, they’re works of art; creating a slide is a creative process.”
Engagement is the natural byproduct of a supportive, inclusive, accessible laboratory environment.
There’s no perfect formula for getting started, Dr. Mulder says. The best approach is to simply start the conversation. “Set up a team with people from across departments, across demographics and organizations to look for ideas.”
Her biggest piece of advice is to collect data and listen. “Listen to people, to your data, to your staff.”
Of course, listening requires making sure that there is an open environment to speak up and in ways that are accessible for all laboratory workers.
Even if your initial program isn’t perfect, Dr. Mulder says, “Just having your staff understand that you’re trying, that you’re interested and that you want to do it can make a difference.”
In her experience, such programs work, “if they’re genuine, collaborative, and consistent, but also open to change,” she says.
Then, after you implement a program, “Look at the policies and procedures that develop, and see if they’re working. Do they make a difference? You can do like any laboratory and come back and monitor it and if it’s not working—change it,” Dr. Elzie explains.
Through surveys and other forms of feedback, you can gain the data you need to understand what is going on in your workforce, and what they need, he says.
Most importantly, understand that creating such a culture takes time, and is not a quick fix. “If you’re serious about improving and creating a healthy workplace, slowly implement sustainable policies, which will take time and a reasonable amount of resources,” Dr. Elzie says.
Ultimately, laboratory directors need to find ways to encourage, empower and respect the needs of their employees to survive the difficulties and burnout that are a part of the job.
“Pathologists and laboratory professionals are passionate people who really care about the work they do. It’s our job to take care of them,” Dr. Mulder says.