For much of the northern United States, the winter doldrums have arrived. The post-holiday months of February and March loom before us, dark, cold and wet in some fashion.
You arrive to work in the dark, and you leave work in the dark. Fluorescent lab lights artificially illuminate your life. Days are dark and vacation seems far away. After the holidays, people in almost all professions are ready to fast forward to April and skip this part of the year altogether.
Are the winter blues a real thing? Most definitely yes. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects approximately 10 million people each year, with symptoms ranging from increased anxiety, depression, lethargy and decreased enjoyment in activities.
Managers must constantly battle low morale in the laboratory. Stressful work environments, budget restrictions, and staffing shortages cause many laboratories to function in a constant state of discontent. Combine this existing low morale with the winter blues, and you have a managerial mess on your hands.
So what's the cure to the laboratory winter blues? Well, there are a couple of "treatments" that may help your staff during these months.
Light is a proven treatment for those suffering from the winter blues (Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder). Do your employees routinely walk down the hall to a tiny, dilapidated break room for lunch, where negative conversations rule the room? Perhaps encourage a change of scenery. Invite a few employees at a time to join you in the cafeteria, which hopefully has some windows with natural light. Consider purchasing a few SAD-specific lights to set-up in a breakroom for use by employees.
Conversation can be instrumental in raising morale. Keep conversation positive and hopeful—discussing new and upcoming ideas or improvements at your institution. Openly discuss challenges as opportunities. Maybe have a deck of conversation cards laying on tables to prompt a shift in daily conversation.
Use the time with your employees to remind them of the value in their work; that it's more than just a job. They are caring for patients, providing a valuable service, and making a difference. Give examples as you are able: perhaps a case where a lab result made a diagnosis, maybe their overtime allowed a patient to be discharged, or perhaps their idea has resulted in process improvement. Expressing the value of our work cannot be overstated to employees who are feeling discouraged or discontent.
Support your staff, during these difficult days. Listen to their concerns with fresh ears; don't just brush them aside. Address their concerns openly and promptly. Provide opportunities for growth and development. This can be done without touching your budget. Perhaps schedule time off-bench for a continuing education activity or course. Delegate a project to newer members of your staff, allowing them to spread their wings a bit. Allow a seasoned staff member to mentor a newbie, sharing years of laboratory wisdom and (hopefully positive) experience.
And finally, celebrate! Part of the letdown of these winter months is the fact that all of the holiday celebrations are done. This is a great time to start planning National Medical Laboratory Week festivities. In order to involve everyone, maybe create your own reasons to celebrate. Have you reached a turn-around-time goal? Celebrate! Have you decreased corrected reports? Celebrate! Have you survived a week of nasty winter weather? Celebrate! Just start making up reasons to celebrate and encourage your staff. And when celebrating, remember to include healthy foods and beverages to balance out the treats everyone loves. Diet also plays a significant role in mood and energy.
Overall, the winter can be a challenging time for everyone. Determine to encourage, support, and celebrate each other while (im)patiently waiting for Spring!