The “Now what?” phase of your sterile processing career

During some seasons of your sterile processing (SP) career, you may feel like you have control over your own destiny, like a captain steering your own professional ship through the seas of growth, experience, and opportunity. And then…the iceberg.

For some, these iceberg moments threaten to sink our entire career ship. For others, these moments jolt us awake to the stark reality that we’re not quite as in control of all the variables that impact our careers as we may have thought.

Either way, these moments can—and I believe should—be good for us. But the available resources out in the industry today to help SP professionals navigate this “Now what?” phase of their life is quite slim. This article seeks to begin the industry conversation, and hopefully spark many more articles, podcasts, conference sessions, and education on this critical topic of unexpected career shifts.

Leaders on thin ice

While every SP professional is always at some risk of being politely asked to leave their place of employment, to put it gently, leaders tend to bear an exceptionally heavy weight on their shoulders with these kind of unexpected career shifts. Sometimes the reasons for the leadership transition are actually good reasons. 

It’s not uncommon for health systems and departments, desperate for qualified personnel, to hire or promote a team member who may have the technical background and experience in the industry, but may not have the requisite leadership skill set to navigate the extremely complex, stressful, and often broken processes that come with the average Sterile Processing department. These new leaders, while full of potential and promise, often run into serious roadblocks managing change in their departments, securing difficult buy-in from inside and outside of their departments, and dealing with the level of quality issues that are systemic across our country. 

New leader or not, many reading this article will have had the experience of showing up at the hospital one day, only to find out it is your last day at the organization. Perhaps you even had the ignominious distinction of being ushered off the premises by security. “Come on guys, is this really necessary?!”

Sometimes these events are public in nature, prompted by some kind of serious quality event that makes the rounds on online forums, news articles, and other media. In other situations, it may be kept hush-hush from Human Resources (HR) on down, with the rumor mill left to fill in the blanks with all manner of imaginative stories about who you crossed or who had it in for you.

But there are also scenarios—many, unfortunately—when SP professionals are pressured out of their positions or flat-out terminated for no good reason at all. Oh, there will be some reason or reasons documented in the official HR files, but most people know the reality is that this decision from the hospital was a political one, a form of blacklisting or cover-your-butt tactics that sought to get the person rocking the boat thrown overboard. Moving on from this kind of professional exit is even harder.

The world giving way beneath you

Leader or frontline technician, whether you saw the writing on the wall or you were surprised with a pink slip one random Friday morning, these experiences can be dramatically disorienting, disheartening, and emotionally gut-wrenching.

“Do I really belong in leadership?”

“What if I’m not supposed to be doing sterile processing at all?”

“Am I really the kind of employee they say I am—worth firing?”

“What will my friends, family, and industry contacts thing of me now?”

The flood of questions and disappointment pours in from every angle. And every person responds in myriad ways. If you’re naturally self-confident, you may be tempted to sweep it all aside, chalk it up to “haters,” and jump immediately to the next ship going a direction you want to go. On the other end of the spectrum, for those who tend to struggle with feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, and the like, losing your job appears to confirm every dark thought you ever had about yourself, striking at the very core of your self-worth.

As you can probably guess, neither of these extremes is healthy for you as a person, nor as an SP professional—even if there may be a little truth to both of them. You very well may have had haters involved in your situation, people seeking to harm you professionally just for spite. You very well may have been unprepared, untrained, or unsupported to lead through the kind of complexities thrown into your lap by your upline leaders. So in some sense, you were inadequate. Slowing down, being honest with yourself, and gleaning all you can from these lessons and experiences are critical steps toward not repeating the iceberg moment again in your career. 

Okay, but now what?

When the earth gives way beneath your feet—or to keep our metaphor going, when your ship begins to splinter against a professional iceberg—one of the most important things you can do is embrace the moment. I know, this may sound like weird advice when you are feeling hurt, mistreated, misunderstood, depressed, angry, offended, and every other kind of deep emotional response, but to do otherwise is to miss one of the greatest lessons to be had in professional life—both inside and outside of sterile processing.

These kinds of transitions may feel like failure, and in some sense, they may be a failure of your vision for what the next 3, 6, 12 months were going to look like in your career. In reality, they are a rare wake-up call that jolts you out of the kinds of career and future assumptions so many of us operate on from day to day. This jolt, this wake-up call, brings a measure of clarity that is one of the most powerful tools you will ever have as a professional to hit the pause button, reevaluate where you really—and I mean really—want to go with your career.

Ask yourself some hard questions. Reach out to people who care about you and ask them hard questions about your situation as well. Dig deep into yourself, even more than the specific event that led to your transition, and ask yourself if you’ve really been steering yourself or if you’ve merely been riding on autopilot for years.

Then, and only then, pick a new destination on the horizon, get yourself in gear, and hit fast-forward. You may be shocked at how fast and how far you get, and how many more icebergs you’ll safely pass along the way.

What say you?