There is something telling about the pressure we sterile processing technicians place on ourselves to cut corners and complete work faster. It is never implied, but the average worker feels pressured, whether that pressure comes from a circulator calling on the surgeon’s behalf stating the patient is on the table and something needs to be quickly reprocessed, or the immense amount of case carts and shelves piled with instruments waiting to be processed.

The complexity of surgical instruments and the specific steps required to clean them never gets simpler. That is why shortcuts are not an option. So how do we calm our minds about working fast to instead focus on that high level of detail and the quality of work we provide?

Two types of pressure 

There are two types of pressure to be aware of: internal and external. Having high-quality work depends on managing these pressures. The external pressures include leadership pushing employees to get department work done quicker. Let’s face it; leadership isn’t perfect. They may be trying to encourage you, but it can come off as pressure to rush.

Additionally, the operating room (OR) clients wanting faster reprocessing can be a contributing factor. Coworkers could be rushing you because they are stuck waiting on you to finish a task before they can start their own, or they are nagging like a mother-in-law who knows it all again. Finally, lack of time can create undue pressure, such as needing to turn those priorities around within the shortest time frame when the IFU has 20 steps to complete the cleaning process safely.

 Managing pressure

These external pressures are typically out of our control, but how we react to the challenges of the pressures boils down to doing it right the first time. When you make a mistake and let the pressure get to you, the assigned task can take longer than usual, or it might have to be done again. It is essential to watch the internal pressure we place upon ourselves to counter the external pressures placed upon us.

 Compromising safety

Internal pressure is purely the pressure you place upon yourself. Often this doesn’t include any external pressure; it’s just your desire to work faster and process more instruments than you should. That desire can translate to working faster, skipping steps, ignoring breaks, and working for extended periods. While we all want to be efficient and get work done quickly, it is only acceptable to the point where safety becomes compromised by the rate of progress you’re making. 

There are also the risks associated with pressure, such as increasing the likelihood of accidents and exposure to hazards within our workplace. We certainly do not want to injure ourselves or others by rushing. Rushing can lead to more unhappy OR techs who find mistakes, increase the need to redo tasks, costing additional time, and yield more product damage. In the worst case, rushing due to pressure can result in mistakes that can create a debilitating injury or cost you your position. 

Managing temptations

With time, seasoned employees can learn how to combine instrument trays without looking at the recipes. It is critical to continue to look at the formula to maintain that high level of compliance with the high level of detail. Keep in mind that mistakes are made when you become too relaxed. So, strive to find that pace where your skills and confidence are not getting in the way of your work. 

Every technician has days when so many trays are piled around the workspace that it is tempting to start going by memory and knocking out trays quickly. It is tempting. However, ask yourself, “Would I want that tray to go to a family member?” No, probably not. 

It is difficult to stop that anxiety process and keep integrity in front of pressure. Plan your work patterns before you start to avoid some of the pressures. What are the priorities? What tools, equipment, training, time, etc., do you need to do the job quickly but safely? Make sure you communicate if you need to catch up. Ask for help if something needs to be done within a specific time frame. Communicating allows leadership to help you with additional hands or notify the client of the expected delay. Finally, take the time to evaluate your progress. Are you rushing? Are you compromising your best work? 

Leadership interventions

Leadership can assist in reducing staff pressure by having more high-use sets on hand and increasing inventory. Enacting a communication log with the OR to help prioritize sets and reduce turnaround time will also take the pressure off. Explain to OR staff that keeping instrumentation organized and reducing the mixing of instruments or trays will increase SPD efficiency; otherwise, it will slow down SPD team members. Speak up about expectations, such as new team members learning instrumentation will work slower, and that is okay.

Creating and promoting a culture that values integrity and attention to detail will reduce staff’s anxiety about rushing. Finally, focus on filling those open positions within the department. Lack of staffing in sterile processing increases the workload pressure and probability of burnout, compounding the issues. 

Rise above external or internal pressure. There is more to lose for the patient and yourself by caving to the pressure. No matter the pressure source, the results are entirely up to you. So slow down, communicate, and take the pressure off.