Andrew Jones, MBA, MLS(ASCP)CM
As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic sweeps across the United States, clinical testing obligations have largely shifted, requiring instant adjustments in personnel safety, alterations in staffing, and onboarding/validation of new testing platforms. These have led to complete re-designs of workflow for multiple laboratory departments and have put enormous weight on the backs of not only laboratory administration and leadership, but on the true frontline soldiers of the laboratory who are performing the testing.
Many supervisors were forced to scale back their workforces due to the closure of clinics, delays in elective surgeries, and drops in Emergency Department visits during the early stages of the crisis. This led to laboratory professionals experiencing substantial changes in work responsibilities, ranging from cross training to perform COVID-19 testing, cutting of hours due to decreased workload, being furloughed for the duration of the shutdown, or even being completely let go. With some laboratories reporting as high as 60 to 90 percent decreases in output in the first months of the pandemic, it would not be too farfetched to extrapolate that this drastic down shift in testing would negatively affect the morale of the workforce in question.
On the other hand, large reference labs like LabCorp have set dedicated hours to serve non-COVID-19 testing for their elderly and most vulnerable patients. “Providing this dedicated hour each day for our most vulnerable patients can help protect those patients and help flatten the coronavirus curve,” said Adam H. Schechter, president and CEO of LabCorp. “Enhanced social distancing can limit the potential spread of the virus and offer greater peace of mind for people who have important and ongoing health and testing needs.”1
“The SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has forced some difficult situations upon laboratory professionals and administration, but the flexibility and passion for our profession, and transparent leadership have resulted in sustained and even increased laboratory morale.”
Anytime there are substantial changes in employee work expectations and responsibilities, there is a high risk of pushback, and typically a decrease in employee morale. Given the novel nature of the pandemic we find ourselves in, and the drastic importance of COVID-19 testing, laboratory administration cannot afford wide-scale dips in laboratorian morale. Furthermore, large negative shifts in overall employee morale can have long term detrimental effects on department culture, outside and inside department reputation among peers, and the ability to recruit new and talented staff. All this considered, it would be easy to assume laboratory professionals would report a decrease in laboratory morale during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Surprising Results from Laboratory Employee Morale Survey
To study this theory, we surveyed laboratory professionals performing COVID-19 testing to get a broad-spectrum, qualitative view of how COVID-19 has affected laboratory employee morale. In preliminary analysis, we found that over two-thirds of surveyed participants reported equal or increased morale at their laboratories from the start of the pandemic through May of 2020. These results are somewhat surprising given its antithetical position to normal expected morale changes resulting from large responsibility shifts.
Jim Flanigan, CAE, ASCLS executive vice president, offered one explanation that resonated with these findings during a recent presentation at the 2020 ASCLS & AGT Joint Annual Meeting. “There is not another profession in the healthcare workforce that is as flexible as clinical laboratory professionals,” he said. “To essentially ramp up to millions of tests of a test that did not exist on January 1 of this year, and do it in a way where the people who are performing those tests […] they have these remarkably flexible skills that allow them to train very quickly from one area of the laboratory to another.”2
We found that despite the negative effects of the pandemic, job satisfaction and positive morale remained. As the “hidden members” of the healthcare team, our profession is full of individuals who care deeply about our patients, about the accuracy of the science, and about the laboratory’s profound impact on public health during this pandemic. Large increases in media attention resulting in heightened public awareness of medical testing, and in some cases new access to organizational funds to increase testing capabilities, have chaperoned a reaffirmation of the importance of our role in healthcare for many laboratory professionals.
Surge in Attention and Re-Affirmation of Purpose
Regardless of what managerial philosophy you ascribe to, the majority highlight the importance of employee esteem and self-actualization in reaching their highest levels of efficiency, happiness, and sense of professional fulfillment. Abraham Maslow points out that employees at these levels of his Hierarchy of Needs, “place importance upon a sense of professional accomplishment and upon recognition of their achievements.”3 This surge in attention and re-affirmation of purpose may have satisfied many higher psychological and self-fulfillment needs of the laboratory employees. So even in times of change, many in our profession feel a reinvigorated passion for their work.
Multiple participants in our survey stated they, “feel even more strongly committed to participating in this kind of work” and that “it is nice that more people realize we exist and have gained at least some understanding of our importance!” These psychological feelings of being essential alongside the appreciation that, “(t)he work we are doing is imperative to our colleagues, institution, and community” could be directly influencing the increase in laboratory morale during COVID-19.
Another potential source of increased morale lies in the improved communication with laboratory management and C-suite. New testing platforms, procedures, and protocols have required increased administrative contact with laboratorians to continue to communicate how facilities are handling testing during the pandemic. Open communication with leadership almost always increases morale. Everyone in the laboratory likes to feel like they are up to date with the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, and transparent leadership typically results in happier, more informed employees.
At the facility where I work, the microbiology director, manager, and supervisor, along with other department heads, have done a fantastic job communicating important information. This includes daily rundown of testing output numbers, procedural updates, changes in inpatient vs. outpatient testing, and holding weekly COVID-19 update meetings with microbiology lab staff. This “open dialogue between administration and laboratory professionals allows for the most informed decisions to be made by leadership and allows laboratorians to feel like their input is being accounted for and represented within organizational decisions.”4
The SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has forced some difficult situations upon laboratory professionals and administration, but the flexibility and passion for our profession, and transparent leadership have resulted in sustained and even increased laboratory morale. Perhaps this pandemic is the push we need to continue to grow the laboratory profession to the level of recognition and prestige the clinical laboratory deserves.
- LabCorp Sets Dedicated Hours to Serve the Non-COVID-19 Testing Needs for Elderly and Most Vulnerable People. (2020). Business Wire.
- Flanigan, J., & Cooney, P. (2020). Washington Labvocacy Briefing. Paper presented at the 2020 ASCLS Joint Annual Meeting. https://ascls.org/education-meetings/annual-meeting/jam-on-demand
- Maslow, A., & Lewis, K. (1987). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Salenger Incorporated, 14, 987.
- Jones, A. (2020). General Management Theory. Academic Lecture. University of Kansas.
Andrew Jones is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at University of Kansas in Kansas City.