June 14, 2024

Story # 2: Unhappy Employees and Broken Systems

Local Hospital Emergency Room:

My mom was staying with me, and her legs just gave out. We decided to head to the Emergency Room of a local hospital and ensure she hadn’t injured something in the fall. Within a few minutes in the ER, she was diagnosed with low sodium levels, and they decided to admit her. After 5 or 6 hours, I sought someone to get an ETA on the room. I was told there were plenty of rooms but insufficient staff on the floor to accommodate another patient. I asked how long it could take and was told that the worst case was a couple of days.  I can certainly understand capacity issues, but two days in the emergency room? She was taken to her room after 4:00 AM –  15 hours after arrival.

As a professional problem solver, I find it hard to believe that there is no other available option than having an 86-year-old woman on a gurney in the emergency room for 15 hours.

To make matters worse, no attempt was made to make the ER simulate a patient room. No food, water, additional blankets, or pillows were offered to make my mom more comfortable. I had to interrupt the staff at the nurse’s station to ask for some water and an extra pillow. I was wrapped up in my coat because it was freezing there, and I sat in a chair resembling my elementary school’s cafeteria chairs for 15 hours. It was miserable. No one apologized, updated us on the progress of a room, or acknowledged that we were not having an ideal experience.

While there, we interacted with a steady stream of technicians, nurses, and doctors. If I had to describe the overall feeling, I would say “disengaged.” Everyone was doing their job, but they weren’t happy about it. You could hear them talking and joking with each other at the nurse’s station, but once in the room with my mom, they did their work only. I even tried pointing out that my mom had been a nurse, thinking it could help create a connection. They were not interested.

The other thing I noticed was a level of specificity that impacted the experience. If my mom asked a nurse to use the restroom, they would leave to find a nursing assistant, which at one point took more than an hour. I understand the productivity that is supposed to come from specialization, but it delivered a very poor patient experience.

During the night, I met a more personable nurse. I noted she was wearing a sweatshirt from a local University, and we discussed her alma mater. She was a traveling nurse, which gave her the flexibility to care for her ailing mother. She shared that her shifts were never in the same department or with the same staff because of how the scheduling was done. I asked if that type of schedule made it hard to make friends in the workplace. Her response was one of those moments when many client situations flashed before my eyes. She said didn’t want to develop friends. She said she just wanted to come in and get her work done because all the permanent staff did was complain.

She shared that the older nurses were great mentors and helped her learn when she started. Today, she claimed most of the more tenured nurses had left the profession, and the newer nurses weren’t trained properly and had no one to show them the ropes.  Hearing this story, it ran through my head – why aren’t you helping them? Even the talkative one was disengaged and also complaining.

There was one bright spot, and it was Calvin. Calvin transported my mom to imaging at about 4:00 PM the first day. He was personable and kind. He talked and joked with my mom, assured her she was in good hands, and made his few minutes with us pleasant and memorable. A few days later, I ran into him in the elevator, and he remembered me and asked how my mom was doing. Calvin was the highlight of the hospital stay and possibly the entire two-month period.

Lesson #1: Unhappy Employees Impact Your Customers

I read a statistic yesterday that 53% of Americans are unhappy at work. Unhappy people are probably doing “just enough,” like most of the hospital ER staff.  Consider what a “just enough” experience feels like for your customers.

Think about how your employees interface with your customers. Are they just about completing their work? Or do they create pleasant and memorable experiences? Do you have disengaged employees? Do they complain to the other staff? Are they poisoning the well of employee happiness? Are your employees complaining to your customers? What impression do they leave with your customers? How difficult do these employees make it for you to find better employees? How can you improve your culture and make your business attractive to happy, engaged employees?

When I ask business owners questions like this, I often hear, “I’m paying them; that should be enough.” It’s not enough. Owners and managers must pay attention to their teams, notice when an employee is disengaged, and try to fix it.  If they can’t, it’s better for the employee, the owner, and the customers if they find another position. Disengaged employees hurt our healthcare system, businesses, and educational institutions.  Don’t settle for a warm body. Find the people who care.

I will never go to this hospital system again.

Lesson #2:  Minimize the Impact When Something Goes Wrong

What happens when your system is disrupted? Do you react and try to improve the situation to minimize the impact on your customers? Or do you fail to recognize that your internal problem negatively impacts your customers? Systems go down, employees call out, and machines break down. It’s your job to identify and quickly minimize the impact on your customers.

I was on a JetBlue flight delayed out of Richmond many years ago. After the announcement, the team wheeled out a cart full of drinks and snacks for their customers waiting at the gate. It was impressive, especially compared to what happens with the other carriers. The cost is minimal, but the impact is substantial.

Were there snacks for people at the ER that day? Could they have moved the patients who would be there for a prolonged period to one end of the ER and tried to minimize the noise? Could they have acknowledged that it was an unpleasant experience and asked if they could make us more comfortable? Could management realize that their staffing issues put undue pressure on the ER and change the process to accommodate longer stays? Could they have floater personnel that can be redirected to a floor when new patient needs increase? They could do all of those things; they just didn’t.

Take a look at your processes from the customer’s viewpoint. Do they have to wait for email responses? How quickly do you deliver bad news? Does your sales team avoid telling a customer there is a problem until the customer asks? What do your conference rooms and other meeting places look like? Do customers feel welcomed, or are you moving boxes out of the way to make a place for them to sit?

Your customers have choices. They will not continue to work with you if they have terrible experiences.

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