By - November 16, 2022
In my recent columns, I’ve asked the rhetorical question “Can you hear me now?”1,2,3 as a means to discuss cultural diversity in the era of global health, deaf and hard of hearing employees in the laboratory, and ways to master the ever-elusive soft skill of being a good listener. These are all current topics circulating within the boundless activities of someone who is a very busy mother, wife, pathologists’ assistant, chair of the Council of Laboratory Professionals, student of ASL-English interpretation, art director for the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA) Grossing Guidelines,4 Leadership Institute graduate, Lab Management University student, and member of other workgroups/initiatives of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). While some of these roles may seem unrelated, they are all very much intertwined. I give 1000% of my time and effort to each of these facets of my life, and find great fulfillment through my service to each and every one of them. To use the words of our CEO E. Blair Holladay from this past ASCP Leadership Forum, I seek to satisfy my “inner-net,” and I am driven to fulfill that mission each and every day.
But to be completely transparent, this path to my personal fulfillment is sometimes fraught with stress and lacks equilibrium. I suspect many who serve alongside me struggle with this very issue. I would like to ask myself, and ask those of you who also seek dynamic equilibrium to ask yourselves, “Can you hear you now?”
Spoiler alert! This is not a self-help article on minimizing commitments or time management. Nor it is a 12-step program on how to say no. Frankly, that’s not my style. My goal is to provide tips that will lead us to be healthy, happy, and whole medical laboratory professionals, and find the freedom to be true to our “inner-nets.”
To effectively answer the question “Can you hear you now?” we must take a step back and listen to the pulse of our “inner-nets.” As someone who bleeds volunteerism, it can be awkward to examine the “me” in this question. Also, what is this “dynamic equilibrium,” and why is it so important to achieve? Dynamic equilibrium can simply be defined as “a steady state where inputs equal outputs, even though they are continuously changing.”5 Those of you with experience at the gross bench can relate to this concept of external inputs/outputs, having heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out.” To take this one step further for those of you clinical chemists out there, we also need to evaluate our homeostatic equilibrium, or our entire internal environment.6 Achieving that equilibrium demands the ability to effectively manage work stress, which requires managing both internal and external inputs/outputs.
As medical laboratory professionals, we are the cornerstone of health care, and as such, are at the greatest risk for imbalanced equilibrium. One of the largest contributing factors of this undue imbalance is work stress. By nature, we have high job demands—physical, mental, and emotional—and frequently low resources to meet these demands. Add to the equation additional factors such as high turnover, pending workforce shortages, long-term vacancies, salary discordance among other healthcare fields, and we are at serious risk for losing equilibrium, or even the light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, patient safety is negatively impacted.
While it may be impossible to avoid the emotional, physical, and cognitive demands of our jobs, we should seek homeostasis when we are not in our work environment. One way is to achieve true “detachment” from work. Detachment is “an individual’s sense of being away from the work situation and its stressors.”7 Detachment comes in many forms. Everyone can relate to a time when their work situation negatively consumed them, and times where it didn’t. I encourage you to consider that paradigm and seek ways to detach in a way that will encourage a healthy equilibrium. This may seem like an odd call to action after I just cited myriad ways I contribute to our professional society and its mission, but I would argue that “work” and “mission” are two very different concepts. In fact, I would argue that if you can achieve this detachment and find freedom from the stress it causes, you can be free to get back to the mission of serving patients and preserving the future of our profession through acts of volunteerism.
In addition to workplace detachment, a variety of methods can be employed, such as those published by Harvard Business Review in the article “Help Your Team Achieve Work-Life Balance—Even When You Can’t.” Tips from the Review’s article include the following:1. Communicate that the organization’s success is based on a marathon, not a sprint.
This may sound completely unreasonable, especially when you may be considering how long it took to recover from last week’s downtime, but hear me out. Yes, there are times when our jobs require 1000% of our efforts. However, as members of a team, we need to work together to give each other support during these times of high demand. Taking mental “downtime” can allow ourselves periods of recovery that will enable us to get back in the race and be a more effective employee. Supervisors, managers, and bench techs should look for ways to encourage their team to find these “downtimes.” Your organization’s mission demands it.2. Hire enough staff, and take turns taking time off.
While the almighty FTE rules the roost, and hiring staff may not always be an option due to newly improved automation, taking turns taking time off is very feasible. Share personal goals about time off among your team. Be honest and open with each other. Life happens—and believe that when you say it. If we make sure that our time off is not burdensome to our teammates, much more value will be placed on the time taken.3. Remind people that we are all humans and have physical limitations.
We serve patients 24/7, 365 days a year. Many of us work multiple shifts, or late nights. Know your limits. Sleep deprivation is a serious health risk and only further decreases quality patient care. Have an open and honest dialogue with your supervisor if a particular shift isn’t working for you.4. Redistribute work more evenly.
Research suggests that managers often do not accurately estimate the time it takes to complete a task. Add to the confusion the quandary of basing estimates on “high performers,” and suddenly you have an unevenly distributed workload. Those employees then become unhappy and burned out. Utilizing the resources of the entire team in a more even manner will bring growth opportunities to those in need, and alleviate stress on those high performers.5. Set and keep your own boundaries.
This may be the most difficult task for me personally. We need to communicate clearly and be true to those boundaries—others will respect them, adapt their behaviors, and even set boundaries of their own.6. Debunk your own limiting beliefs and assumptions.
Our beliefs and assumptions can be a major stumbling block, and can even affect our ability to create and manage boundaries. Don’t decide what others think, or assume something is or isn’t. Think outside the box, and treat every situation with a fresh perspective, as though it’s the first time.7
“Can you hear you now?” is intended to be a question that you ask yourself. To maintain the ASCP patient-centric priority, we need to maintain dynamic and homeostatic equilibrium in our own lives. Detaching from the stressors of work, and achieving work-life balance is the catalyst to the freedom to serve patients, the medical laboratory community, and ultimately your “inner-net.”