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Is Lab Morale Plummeting?

Published September 9, 2016 6:06 AM by Scott Warner

Low morale, to paraphrase Justice Stewart, can be hard to define but we all know it when we see it. But unhappy employees, obvious or not, who are overstressed and overworked can cause a lot of problems: increased absenteeism, short tempers, poor customer services, and more. A workplace where few people smile is a miserable experience on both sides of the counter.

For laboratories, as pointed out in an article on the AACC website, “low morale can have significant implications for patient safety. Low morale can lead to a dangerous disconnect between employees and their jobs that may cause them to cut corners, not pay attention to details, or simply not care whether or not they do the right thing.”

Consultant John Schaefer writes on the American Management Association web site, “In these hectic, overworked, understaffed times, it’s easier than ever... to come across as a leader who believes that everybody is lucky to have a job, so you better suck it up, keep your nose to the grindstone, and don’t complain.”

Given the state of flux healthcare is in, an industry-wide shift to outsourcing and consolidation to reduce cost, and an aging, dwindling staff that is not being replaced, it’s easy to imagine that laboratory morale is suffering. Labs forced to cut back, lose people by attrition, do more with less, and see work outsourced feel under fire. This is all the more difficult because of the nature of laboratory medicine: almost no one outside our profession understands what we do, so support can be absent or a long time coming.

A lab manager is caught in the middle on these issues. A disgruntled, overworked staff is difficult to please, and being under pressure to cut costs from above adds to the mix. It may not be fun to work the bench with low morale, but it’s a nightmare as a manager.

But what causes low morale? Generally it’s dissatisfaction with why decisions are made. Often this is misinterpreted as “employees just want to make decisions,” although I’ve never believed this. Everyone wants respect, and that includes knowing why things are the way they are. Nothing is more demoralizing than being treated without basic dignity and respect. Making decisions is - face it - just more work.

But we all expect leadership to have our back, too. Working longer hours, working extra hours, and being asked to do more has a demoralizing effect, especially if there is no end in sight seen. As educated professionals we work in a different environment than assembly line factories with quotas, foremen, and whistles. Is this feeling changing for some labs out there?

Lab managers aren’t immune to “do more with less.” Working managers are asked to do a full-time job in part-time hours. That’s a tough assignment for anyone; I’ll bet the burnout rate for managers in that position is higher.

But does the above describe today’s laboratory? Is lab morale plummeting?

NEXT: Charge Reconciliation

posted by Scott Warner


As long as we have AMT, ASCP, ASCPi, ASCLS, AABB, NCA, HEW, AABB, ABCD, EFGH, IJKL, MNOP, QRST, UVXYZ Med Tech Organizations NOTHING's gonna change PLUS put licensure in all 52 states plus Guam, American Samoa, Northern Marianas and Puerto Rico, making hard for the technologists to work in between states, there will always be shortages and no help in the horizon. Until all of these changes? Burry this article on a time capsule and after 100 years there will be another written article WITH THE SAME contents posted in Advance! Morale is not only the all time low but the apathy is incurable! No offense meant but being honest is just as noble as our profession right?

E W September 16, 2016 2:05 PM

Sean hit the nail on the head. Low morale comes from a lack of leadership. Unfortunately, nobody wants to admit responsibility for morale rests with those who manage them. In the laboratory field, managers by and large advance into management position from the bench. When they become managers, they arrive rich with technical experience, but devoid of management skills, much less leadership talent. Then, when the staff becomes dysfunctional, or insists on remaining so, they fail to consider their own contribution. It's a fatal and perpetual entrenchment.  

There are some great lab leaders out there, make no mistake. They are great only because they realized their weaknesses and took the initiative to learn how to manage and lead people. As a result, they transformed their position instead of merely occupying it.

Dennis Ernst September 16, 2016 8:57 AM

Low morale? Sure! When does lab staff ever get a complement?

Or even recognition for doing a good (perfect!--it's the standard) and fast (the standard again) job? And our field is 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Our jobs are always framed in the negative;

not fast enough, etc., etc. And the benefits leave much to be desired. For the education required there are many other fields I'd have gone for that would have been more rewarding in all ways.

But, again, there are always the "slackers" in every facility who

DO enjoy their jobs and we've all seen this.

Jess King, Laboratory - CLS , Hospital September 16, 2016 4:12 AM
Porterville CA

Lab morale has been on a steady decline for at least 20+ years. There was considerable anger and frustration among the seasoned professionals while I was doing my internship through the lab, and I could never understand why administration did nothing about it. Over the years I've come to understand why:

1. The lab remains unorganized and non-unionized like nurses are.

2. The lab has been powerless to raise awareness of the importance of services they provide.

3. They have been pushed around by nurses for so long, MT's/MLT's are little more than punching bags.

No amount of managerial skill will solve the problem. Healthcare will continue to advance towards outsourcing, cheaper labor, and other diagnostic avenues. Administration won't be happy until the expense of diagnosis is eliminated, but it should not be forgotten that you get what you pay for. Theranos was a prime example of that.

David September 15, 2016 11:02 PM
Phoenix AZ

Janice, Good suggestions! As for getting hospitals/tech schools together...there is a hospital in my locale that has a long-standing relationship with colleges and universities as well as a Med Tech School. And nearly every student that goes thru their school stays and works at this hospital, mostly forever. It's a good place to start, but I'm not convinced that working in only one hospital lab for ever is a good idea. Those folks were the most resistant to change I've ever seen. And coming in as an inspector, I saw many things that were not in compliance but since they'd always been done that way and were taught that way and no one had any other see where this is going, right? They didn't even want to defer to the CLIA regulations!

Kathie Rezek September 15, 2016 9:46 AM

This is such a complex topic.

Low morale in medical laboratories is a nationwide (perhaps international) plague that is running rampant. As a traveler, I have been called into small (28 bed) and large (1000 bed) hospitals to fill in when there is no hope of filling vacant positions in the lab.  Even after I arrive and alleviate the pressure of the workday, employees are waiting for the "next shoe to fall".

I do not think that lab managers/administration are to blame for all of the actions of the employees.

We are in "crisis mode" in this field. What I have experienced in Florida, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Maine:

- many unfilled vacant positions from phlebotomist to pathologist.

- an aging population of laboratory employees unable to keep up due to shortage of help and "health issues"

- lifelong employees with such poor attitudes that carelessness affects the quality of lab results being reported.

- unqualified personnel working in place of licensed Medical Laboratory employees.  Chemists, Microbiologists, and Biology majors are being hired to work in medical laboratories and are being trained as they go.

- employees who do not perform their duties, but are kept on due to the fact that there is no one else.

- nurses getting raises every year, but the lab employees do not.

There is no easy answer.

But some ideas:

-have hospital labs become involve with universities that have a national certification program for lab techs.

-have programs that help pay student loans on new lab employees.

-guarantee hire of the new grads from these programs and alleviate the work load.

-increase pay and decrease hours. Support quality of life for these employees. Offer benefits for part time employees (24 hours a week), to help fill the need.  Offer incentive program for employees working more.

-offer better benefits (more time off/insurance/perks for family of employee)

YES..this will cost money! But the quality of our labs is declining due to cutbacks, due to lean thinking, and due to overworking our employees.

-We need to prevent burnout in this field.  And soon.

Janice, Laboratory - MLS, Triage Staffing September 15, 2016 9:16 AM
Augusta ME

Good comments! Having been a lab manager, I always tried to get input from staff when change was needed and to explain WHY the change directives were coming down from above. I did find, tho', that the staff members who never offered any suggestions were the ones who did the most complaining. Hard to fix that problem. As for the nursing take-over...brothers and sisters, it is happening far and wide and has been for a long time. Having spent nearly seven years as a lab "inspector", I can tell you that most small clinics and POLS do not have any lab-trained personnel on staff. Most of their lab work is moderately complex or waived and is done by MAs or people with only a HSD and on the job training with no understanding of regulatory requirements or underlying processes of the testing they perform. It can be quite frightening. My thoughts on the declaration of nursing degrees as equivalent to biological sciences will mean that the nursing staff will now hold the technical consultant or general or technical supervisor positions and the outcome will be more labs losing accreditation. How does that help anyone?

Kathie Rezek September 15, 2016 9:12 AM

Good comments all around. Our profession is not what it was 30 years ago! I don't think the laboratory is alone is feeling low morale due to cutbacks and staffing shortages. Sean, you've made a insightful point about managers vs. leaders. We all know that difference when we see it, too. Anyone can assume authority. Few - and often those not in authority - lead.

A big problem with our profession is the black box nature of it. It's hard to feel appreciated and valued if no one knows what you do. That's one reason I advocate ward rounding, attending interdisciplinary team meetings, and working directly with doctors and nurses as often as possible. It helps techs understand how important their work is, and we can make a difference on a daily basis as part of the team caring for the patient (isn't that why we chose this profession?). I could give a dozen examples. I feel very strongly that it's no longer enough to sit in the box and perform testing. We are needed more than ever before, and it's up to us to show the way.

Whether direct teamwork with other professions improves morale is another tale.

Scott Warner September 14, 2016 2:43 PM

This is a No Brainer Question. I am actually looking for the nursing take-over over the lab. This profession is hopeless- nothing's going to change AT ALL. Am just going to strive to be healthy so that I will never set my foot at a hospital. They call themselves practitioners right? So well, they can just practice, do all the guessing games they want, after all nobody needs the lab- we can just pick a monkey off the streets and do labs! Oh, I don't need the lab at all! Am changing careers, maybe selling Avon products...

E W September 13, 2016 2:40 PM

Scott - This is a good topic to discuss. Morale, high or low, is a reflection of leadership. It is not just lab leadership, but also senior hospital or clinic leadership. Generally, the staff will accept decisions that make work more difficult if the manager also takes part in the pain. Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is a book that all managers should read.

Also, readers should not confuse managers with leaders. Being a manager is job, while being a leader is much more.

Thanks for the blog post.


Sean September 12, 2016 10:58 AM

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About this Blog

    Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP)
    Occupation: Laboratory Manager
    Setting: Critical Access Hospital
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