How to support, encourage, and cultivate your highest sterile processing performers

Is it Samantha? Juanita? Carl or Nadyia? Who is that one person on the team who is the undeniable captain of productivity? Which technician carries the rest of the department on their proverbial backs when decontamination is backed up, there are a hundred trays down in assembly, and there’s a mountain of inventory left to sterilize? Chances are good everyone in the department knows who their department workhorse is. The question is what are you doing to support, encourage, and cultivate them to keep it up?

Let’s take a look at what drives these productivity addicts to push themselves so hard, and discuss why it is in everyone’s best interest to create an atmosphere where they can thrive.

The “why” of the department workhorse

Motivation to work hard in sterile processing can come from many places. For some, it is an innate internal drive they have to do all things well. These folks work as hard at a game of checkers as they do checking the cannula in a Synthes Small Frag tray. For them, pushing hard is a matter of personal commitment and drive that they had before they stepped foot into a sterile processing department, and that will go with them if they ever leave.

Other high performers work hard based primarily on external motivation, such as recognition, career growth, compensation, and a sense of responsibility for the patients who will eventually be healed with the instruments they reprocessed. Nothing causes these folks to focus more and step up to challenges like seeing their name on top of a department productivity report, or getting recognized at a team huddle by someone from the operating room.

Obviously, your department high performers are most likely operating with a mixture of both internal and external motivations. It is important to recognize this, and work to understand what those driving motivations are, since these are the fuel that keeps their productive fires burning.

Why are department workhorses so important to the entire team?

To illustrate why our department workhorses are so important to the team, imagine a typical Tuesday afternoon in a sterile processing department. Your second shift is clocking in to begin their workday. Folks are filtering in from the locker room and taking their usual places in a semicircle in front of the bulletin board. The clock ticks over to 3:01 p.m. A look of mild concern begins to ripple across the faces of those who are gathered. A technician turns to her left and whispers, “Have you seen Arlene today?” Her coworker gives a slight shake of her head as she gazes at the floor and responds, “Nope.”

Just then, the second shift supervisor starts the huddle, talking through the various surgeries still ongoing, highlighting the number of case carts already waiting in decontamination, and giving out daily assignments. “Today is Arlene’s day off,” the supervisor notes, as she could tell this is the information everyone else is still waiting for. “Agh” is the chorus heard in response. And off they scatter, steeling themselves for a day without their number one.

You see, the impact of a department workhorse is felt far and wide across a sterile processing team. The most obvious impact is that every tray, case cart, sterilization load, restock, and delivery handled by a workhorse like our imaginary Arlene mentioned above is one less task for everyone else.

It’s more than productivity

At a time in our industry when nearly every department is short staffed and dealing with the loss of many of their more experienced technicians to retirement or interim traveling contracts, these productivity hits can mean drastically different ends to a particular shift. With an Arlene on the floor, we may actually be able to get all of tomorrow’s first cases done. Without her, we’ll be lucky to keep up with add-ons.

Sheer productivity is not the only thing that these workhorses bring with them. As alluded to in the example above, department morale can rise or fall with their presence or absence from the floor. There is often a palpable difference in the morale of a team who knows there is no chance they will accomplish their tasks from one who at least knows they have a decent shot. When a team loses their workhorse, even for a single shift, their morale often sees a tangible dip.

How to keep your highest performers performing at their highest levels

Clearly, department workhorses are vital to many of our team’s successes in carrying our daily surgical workloads. It is almost inevitable that someone will rise to the top of the production reports. So how do we keep them operating at full steam? How do we keep them focused, happy, and supported? Here are a few practical considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Support, but don’t spoil: As critical as your high performers may be, you still cannot afford to spoil them. While they may carry more than their fair share of the workload, the last thing you want to do is alienate other staff members in your support of your workhorses. That being said, you should work to make it easy for your high performers to remain focused during their shift, and remove unnecessary tasks that other members of the team could take off their plates (i.e., answering the phone, getting the door, etc.). The longer they are able to churn, the farther ahead your team will get.
  2. Regularly recognize and motivate them: While not every workhorse is motivated in the same way, each one has their own reasons why they push so hard. Do not take these folks for granted. Even those with the deepest motivation can become a victim to burnout if not re-energized through regular praise and reminders of their “why.”
  3. Intentionally clone them: Even your most committed workhorses will have to take time off. Knowing this, you should constantly be asking yourself and your team who else on this shift has the potential to rise to the level of department workhorse themselves. Intentionally encourage those team members to get a taste of what it feels like to be seen as, and praised as, the department’s highest performer. Some of your technicians are waiting for a chance to shine, and you’ll be glad you gave it to them if your current workhorses ever move on, retire, or just want a long vacation.

Managing and working with high performers is something we all appreciate at some level. Their individual personalities and quirks may endear them to us or irritate us, but their productivity unquestionably carries us through many of the darkest days of overwhelming surgical volume. If you are your department’s workhorse, take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back. If you work with one, let this be your reminder that every day is a little better when that person walks in the door. Make it a point to make sure they know how much you appreciate it.

With that, it’s probably time for all of us to get back to work.

What say you?