We are living through unprecedented times due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stress levels are at an all-time high. Health care providers are sad, tired, overwhelmed, anxious, and even angry. Health care providers feel under appreciated and are overworked. Respiratory therapists, managers, and directors are seeing things they have never seen before, all while taking care of their patients despite the obstacles they face each day. Respiratory therapists are resilient, hard-working, dedicated, flexible, and passionate. In any workplace, conflict is inevitable, and professionals can end up spending time tending to their wounds instead of the business at hand. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events impacts everyone differently.
In the high-pressure and high stakes world of health care, misinterpretations and misunderstandings are unavoidable. Conflicts will come up, most of the time, at the worst possible moment. Often, we end up second-guessing ourselves or others, even battling each other rather than working towards common goals. The consequences of drama and conflict can be severe. It can undermine morale, torpedo productivity, and, most importantly, affect patient care. Clashes can occur among respiratory therapists and other practitioners as they interact with each other daily. Most interpersonal conflicts revolve around environmental stress, personal differences, miscommunication, fear of the unknown, and lack of information. The same things happen with our family members. Administrators can quickly conflict with staff and create tension and stress through policies, behaviors, and actions. Patients can also cause drama and conflict. Often, they are not at their best, and they may lash out or believe that they are not receiving the attention they deserve. Our decisions and actions affect people’s lives. Conflict can be uncomfortable, but it is not always a bad thing. Conflict can provide insight into practices and performance that can be improved. Open thinking, cooperation, and communication are essential for turning conflict into improvement. This practice results in delivering the best possible patient care. Workplace conflicts are unavoidable, especially during today’s trying times. Here are a few suggestions or tools for managing and resolving disputes.
Tool # 1
Take care of yourself. Self-care must be a priority. We tell family members that you cannot care for your loved one unless you take care of yourself first. Yet, as respiratory therapists and leaders, we do not take care of ourselves. If we avoid this, conflict is more likely to arise. We are also less likely to show restraint and patience. The below listing highlights suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Communicate about job stress. This includes communicating with your coworkers, supervisors, and employees.
- Remember that everyone is dealing with an unusual situation and limited resources.
- Realize and accept what you do not have control over.
- Recognize you are performing a crucial role in this pandemic and performing the best you can with the tools you have available.
- Increase your sense of control through a consistent daily routine. Ideally, a routine that is similar to your schedule before the pandemic.
- Exercise when you can.
- Spend time outdoors, whether being active or relaxing.
- Do things that bring you joy when you’re not working.
- Take breaks from the news, including social media.
- Engage in mindfulness techniques, which can include breathing exercises and meditation.1
Tool # 2
Assign an ombudsman. In academia, it is common for institutions to have an ombudsman. An ombudsman is a designated neutral or impartial conflict resolution practitioner who provides confidential and informal assistance to employees on various issues and concerns. The person has no formal decision-making authority or disciplinary responsibilities, nor do they act as advocates for any one position in a dispute. They strive for fairness of the process and healthy conflict resolution. An ombudsman helps employees informally resolve a conflict by facilitating communication to help all parties reach a mutual solution. They may also provide mentoring, coaching, and education to help individuals manage conflict over time. This is something that departments may be able to implement. Hospitals sometimes have an ombudsman to help patients advocate and be a lesion between themselves and the hospital. However, it would be nice to have something similar for employees. It is important to note that this is not a full-time position. It is a person who goes through conflict resolution training. It should be someone neutral that employees would feel comfortable talking to openly.
Tool # 3
Allow for time outs. Respiratory therapists need the ability to call a “time out” if they think things are going in the wrong direction. Supervisors and managers should allow for regular face-to-face meetings to discuss concerns and problems. When you slow things down for a moment, it opens channels for communication. Developing a culture that places a premium on trust, honesty, and good communication is an ongoing challenge. It requires that leader’s model, support, reward good behavior, put programs, and procedures in place to improve. Remember to listen, acknowledge understanding, validate feelings, and apologize when it is appropriate. Sometimes, people are not aware of how they come across, and only discussing the matter with them makes a difference.
In summary, it is essential to develop a culture that places self-care, communication, support, and trust as priorities. Beyond understanding what strategies or tools you would like to use; you should also be aware of your attitude. When working toward conflict resolution with patients, fellow respiratory therapists, or other health care practitioners, it is crucial to stay calm and positive. Celebrate each step of progress you make in moving toward a unified solution. Keep the focus on moving forward as a team rather than focusing on past issues. Remember that the person on the other side is just that, a person. Their opinions, voice, and convictions should be respected even if you disagree. Try to separate feelings for the issue from feelings for the person. The ability to work through conflict is vital as it can profoundly impact performance and outcomes.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Healthcare Personnel and First Responders: How to Cope with Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/mental-health-healthcare.html
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