Teamwork in healthcare holds a place of the utmost importance when it comes to cooperation and the positive outcomes that both patients and providers desire to achieve.

Collaboration and positivity need to be two of our highest-valued attributes in healthcare, and when negativity rears its ugly head on a consistent basis in any particular medical workplace setting, we see the mortal enemy of teamwork in action.

One Bad Apple: The Impact of Negativity

When one person within most any healthcare work environment chronically embodies negativity, the ripple effects are multifaceted. We all know the old adage about what one bad apple can do, and we’ve all likely seen the impact when our workplace barrel of apples is consistently polluted.

Anyone can understandably have a bad moment or a bad day; however, when a bad day becomes a bad week, month, or year, that’s another story entirely.

For instance, if a unit secretary consistently comes into work, sighs heavily, addresses her co-workers with impatience and disdain, and otherwise hemorrhages unhappiness into the surrounding atmosphere, her behavior is not an isolated event. In fact, her poor treatment of others can exponentially poison the well for all.

To continue our scenario, when a nurse is criticized by the impatient and unhappy secretary for making a simple request, that nurse’s mood is altered and her cortisone and stress levels rise. Consequently, she’s unexpectedly curt with a nurse’s aide and that aide then grumpily cares for one of that nurse’s patients with a cantankerous attitude. The patient and his wife feel poorly attended to by the aide and they take out their ire on the nurse, whose day then becomes even more stressful.

When our hapless nurse goes to lunch, she’s unconsciously rude to the cashier in the cafeteria, is irritable with her friends sharing the table with her, and both the cashier and one of the nurse’s lunchmates then go on to be irritable with others throughout the afternoon. This maelstrom of stress and negativity spirals out of control and the well is thoroughly poisoned in multiple directions, possibly involving several dozen people.

A Pox on Our House

These types of situations occur daily in healthcare workplaces worldwide; in fact, they occur in any industry you can imagine. The difference in healthcare is that, unlike a new car showroom or a restaurant, people’s lives and health are actually at stake. A surly waiter or car salesperson can be annoying, but the course of our health isn’t profoundly impacted by those interactions, and no one generally dies as a consequence.

It is widely understood that bullying is a scourge on the nursing profession, although it also manifests between physicians, between doctors and nurses, as well most any other members of the team. Such maltreatment and abuse among medical professionals is an unnecessary yet chronic pox on our house, and the cure is certainly not an escalation of morose negativity.

Moreover, healthcare brings together worried and financially stressed patients, incredibly stressful trauma-related interventions, high-stakes medical care, institutional and financial concerns, as well as various strong personalities striving to cooperate in situations where cooperation is paramount, even as frayed nerves clash with the reality of life-threatening circumstances.

Negativity readily eats away at patient trust and provider satisfaction. In providers, we see the development of stress-based illnesses and frequent reports of depression, anxiety, symptoms of PTSD, suicidality, and high rates of attrition from nursing and other crucial corners of the workforce. The situation could not be more dire and in need of repair and healing.

Enter Mindfulness, Compassion, and Emotional Intelligence

A mindful approach to working with stress has been taught by thought leaders like Jon Kabat-Zinn for decades. Emotional intelligence has been championed by numerous researchers and authors, including Daniel Goleman and his colleagues.

The concept of relational intelligence is currently gaining traction in our society, and nursing leaders like Dr. Renee Thompson and her Healthy Workforce Institute are forging new paths to rid the healthcare industry of incivility and bullying, subsequently replacing them with evidence-based strategies for creating healthier workplaces and improving communication and teamwork.

While compassion for the suffering of our patients is both admirable and necessary, compassion for ourselves and our colleagues is equally important. Healthy, balanced, satisfied medical personnel are needed to staff our institutions and facilities; the bullies, naysayers, and negative disruptors must be weeded out, just as rotten apples can be removed from the barrel so that the rest remain unscathed.

Courageous, forward-thinking healthcare leaders can move the needle on toning down negativity and fostering healthy, positive workplaces. However, the will to act and take the risk of positively disrupting the status quo is essential, even as the array of forces tying the hands of thoughtful leaders are legion.

When we bring compassion; emotional and relational intelligence; and innovative leadership to the healthcare milieu, magic can indeed happen. Who will step up to the plate, take the necessary risks, and elevate the consciousness of the healthcare industry to where it needs to be? Perhaps we are the ones we’ve been waiting for all along.