July 24, 2019

Zero tolerance policies rob ‘energy suckers’ of power

By: Elizabeth Wood

Many OR managers have likely experienced bullying, incivility, or lateral violence at some point in their careers. For newer and more seasoned managers alike, advice for handling difficult people is always welcome, and attendees at the 2019 OR Manager Conference in New Orleans will gain some valuable insights from Barbara Bartlein, MSW, RN, CSP. She will present Defend Civility in Your OR: How to Spot and Deal with Energy Suckers during the closing session on Friday, September 20,

Barbara Bartlein, MSW, RN, CSP

Bartlein, a healthcare motivational speaker and workplace culture expert, is a nurse and clinical psychotherapist. She was previously vice president of St Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and senior vice president of CNR Health. She is also a best-selling author of three books and a contributor to four Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Her newest book is Energy Suckers—How to Deal with Bullies in the Workplace.

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“I was a senior VP by the time I was 36 or 37 years old,” Bartlein told OR Manager. “I was not only one of the youngest people in administration but also one of the few women. It wasn’t uncommon to hear ‘dumb blond’ jokes or to be given what was considered ‘the lousy work,’” she says.

Bartlein has experienced bullying, and as a psychotherapist, she says she treated many healthcare professionals who suffered from stress in the workplace. That work, along with observing the differences between high-performing teams and those that were struggling, inspired her to write the book.


Creating consistent standards

“Bullying is a pervasive issue in nursing and other healthcare fields for many reasons,” Bartlein says. “These are high-stress jobs with a lot of demands. Often, resources are limited and people get stretched thin, so they look for someone to blame or put down.” And, she adds, there’s currently a leadership vacuum in terms of how to treat people civilly and how to respect other cultures and backgrounds.

Bartlein defines “energy suckers” as those who drain others both emotionally and physically. “Energy suckers are people who can bring down a whole team because they literally suck the life, energy, and momentum out of a positive direction,” she says. These people need effective coaching and mentoring, or they need to leave the organization because they will affect the productivity of the team, she adds.

Bartlein sees different standards for different employees as a key reason behind bullying in the workplace. Sometimes management has unwritten rules about what will be tolerated from one member of the staff versus another. For example, there’s often a financial incentive not to upset a physician who might bring a lot of business or patients to the facility, so that physician is not held accountable for bad behavior, she explains.

The same may be true of a long-term employee, she says. Even in the case of a high turnover rate or some other evidence of a negative culture, there may be a tendency to look the other way because of the employee’s long tenure with the organization.

“It’s hypocritical, and everyone feels they don’t need to follow anti-bullying guidelines that aren’t being enforced consistently,” she notes. Citing the example of one hospital’s top leader, who says he deals with bullying “on a case-by-case basis,” Bartlein says, “nothing could be worse.” Having a consistent policy and treating all employees the same way is crucial for eliminating bullying.


Developing human resources

“We’ve helped organizations through a series of seminars,” she says. “We ask people from every department to send a representative, and we call them ‘spark plugs.’ We teach them about the anti-bullying policy, and their job is to help disseminate the information throughout the organization and to somewhat informally enforce this.” This means that a spark plug can respond to a report of bullying by telling the employee some steps to take to manage the situation.

“A zero tolerance policy starts at the top,” she says. “It must be written, and it must explain that every employee is treated the same way.” She adds that an organization’s spark plugs can be trained to share the policy and reinforce it among their peers, but the policy must apply across the organization; it cannot be acceptable for managers to behave differently from staff. And, she adds, “none of this will work unless management is behind it 200%.”

Bartlein is optimistic about workplace culture changing for the better. “Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee has no problem recruiting and keeping nurses because of the way they treat them,” she says. This hospital has a “7/70 time frame” that allows staff to work 7 days on, 10 hours a day and then have a week off. “People love it,” she says. The hospital also permits employees to swap shifts, and it has provided safety escorts for nurses concerned about being in the parking lot late at night.

Bartlein believes more considerate work environments are increasingly prevalent, especially with the growth in Millennial nurse leaders.

“The nurses for the future are extremely well trained, they’ve got a huge knowledge base, and they view nursing as a way to share those skills—but not necessarily by sacrificing everything else,” she says. Millennials want a better balance than many of their Baby Boomer bosses have had, and they also expect people to be treated fairly and civilly.

“When people get compassion fatigue, they’re feeling discouraged and disrespected, and they don’t do their best,” Bartlein says. “There’s an association between the incidence of medical errors and the workplace culture, in particular, bullying.”

When an energy sucker is forced to either change or leave the organization, she says, that can be a powerful incentive for the rest of the staff to treat one another well.

“Most people come to work to be productive—to be happy and enjoy what they’re doing, not to be cranky and miserable,” she says. “All of us can fall into an energy sucker mood from time to time. That’s normal. The question is whether that’s where you stay.”

Listen to Bartlein and lift your energy at the OR Manager Conference. Register at https://2019ormanagerconference.com. ✥

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