Does Lab Morale Impact Patient Safety?

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Low morale, to paraphrase Justice Stewart, can be hard to define but we all know it when we see it. But unhappy employees, obvious or not, who are overstressed and overworked can cause a lot of problems: increased absenteeism, short tempers, poor customer services, and more. A workplace where few people smile is a miserable experience on both sides of the counter.

For laboratories, as pointed out in an article on the AACC website, “low morale can have significant implications for patient safety. Low morale can lead to a dangerous disconnect between employees and their jobs that may cause them to cut corners, not pay attention to details, or simply not care whether or not they do the right thing.”

Consultant John Schaefer writes on the American Management Association web site, “In these hectic, overworked, understaffed times, it’s easier than ever… to come across as a leader who believes that everybody is lucky to have a job, so you better suck it up, keep your nose to the grindstone, and don’t complain.”

Given the state of flux healthcare is in, an industry-wide shift to outsourcing and consolidation to reduce cost, and an aging, dwindling staff that is not being replaced, it’s easy to imagine that laboratory morale is suffering. Labs forced to cut back, lose people by attrition, do more with less, and see work outsourced feel under fire. This is all the more difficult because of the nature of laboratory medicine: almost no one outside our profession understands what we do, so support can be absent or a long time coming.

A lab manager is caught in the middle on these issues. A disgruntled, overworked staff is difficult to please, and being under pressure to cut costs from above adds to the mix. It may not be fun to work the bench with low morale, but it’s a nightmare as a manager.

But what causes low morale? Generally it’s dissatisfaction with why decisions are made. Often this is misinterpreted as “employees just want to make decisions,” although I’ve never believed this. Everyone wants respect, and that includes knowing why things are the way they are. Nothing is more demoralizing than being treated without basic dignity and respect. Making decisions is – face it – just more work.

But we all expect leadership to have our back, too. Working longer hours, working extra hours, and being asked to do more has a demoralizing effect, especially if there is no end in sight seen. As educated professionals we work in a different environment than assembly line factories with quotas, foremen, and whistles. Is this feeling changing for some labs out there?

Lab managers aren’t immune to “do more with less.” Working managers are asked to do a full-time job in part-time hours. That’s a tough assignment for anyone; I’ll bet the burnout rate for managers in that position is higher.

But does the above describe today’s laboratory? Is lab morale plummeting?

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About Author

Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP)
Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP)

Scott Warner grew up in Western Maine. After a stint in the Air Force, he moved to the Maine coast. He has been a hospital laboratory generalist for more than 30 years and manager since 1998. As a freelance writer, his work has appeared in Advance for Medical Laboratory Professionals and other publications. He now lives in northern Maine with his family.

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