Your Workplace Is Toxic: Can You Make It Better?

A physician in your office is hot-tempered, critical, and upsets both the physicians and staff. Two of your partners are arguing over a software vendor and refuse to compromise. One doctor’s spouse is the office manager and snipes at everyone; the lead partner micromanages and second-guesses other doctors’ treatment plans, and no one will stand up to her.

If your practice has similar scenarios, you’re likely dealing with your own anger, irritation, and dread at work. You’re struggling with a toxic practice atmosphere, and you must make changes — fast.

However, this isn’t easy, given that what goes on in a doctor’s office is “high consequence,” says Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, founding director of the program for healthcare negotiation and conflict resolution at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

The two things that tend to plague medical practices most: A culture of fear and someone who is letting ego run the day-to-day, he says.

“Fear overwhelms any chance for good morale among colleagues,” says Marcus, who is also the co-author of Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration. “In a work environment where the fear is overwhelming, the ego can take over, and someone at the practice becomes overly concerned about getting credit, taking control, ordering other people around, and deciding who is on top and who is on the bottom.”

Tension, stress, back-biting, and rudeness are also symptoms of a more significant problem, says Jes Montgomery, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of APN Dallas, a mental health-focused practice.

“If you don’t get toxicity under control, it will blow the office apart,” Montgomery says.

Here are five tips to turn around a toxic practice culture.

1. Recognize the Signs

Part of the problem with a toxic medical practice is that, culturally, we don’t treat mental health and burnout as real illnesses. “A physician who is depressed is not going to be melancholy or bursting into tears with patients,” Montgomery says. “They’ll get behind on paperwork, skip meals, or find that it’s difficult to sleep at night. Next, they’ll yell at the partners and staff, always be in a foul mood, and gripe about inconsequential things. Their behavior affects everyone.”

Montgomery says that physicians aren’t taught to ask for help, making it difficult to see what’s really going on when someone displays toxic behavior in the practice. If it’s a partner, take time to ask what’s going on. If it’s yourself, step back and see if you can ask someone for the help you need.

2. Have Difficult Conversations

This is tough for most of us, says Jeremy Pollack, PhD, CEO and founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, a conflict resolution consulting firm. If a team member is hot-tempered, disrespectful, or talking to patients in an unproductive manner, see if you can have an effective conversation with that person. The tricky part is critiquing in a way that doesn’t make them feel defensive — and wanting to push back.

For a micromanaging office manager, for example, you could say something like,
You’re doing a great job with the inventory, but I need you to let the staff have some autonomy and not hover over every supply they use in the break room, so that people won’t feel resentful toward us.’ Make it clear you’re a team, and this is a team challenge. “However, if a doctor feels like they’ve tried to communicate to that colleague and are still walking on eggshells, it’s time to try to get help from someone — perhaps a practice management organization,” says Pollack.

3. Open Lines of Communication

It’s critical to create a comfortable space to speak with your colleagues, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in New York City. “Creating an environment where there is an open line of communication, whether it’s directly to somebody in charge or having a system where you can give feedback more privately or anonymously, is important so that tension doesn’t build.”

“Being a doctor is a social enterprise,” Marcus says. “The science of medicine is critically important, but patients and the other healthcare workers on your team are also critically important. In the long run, the most successful physicians pay attention to both. It’s a full package.”

4. Emphasize the Positive

Instead of discussing things only when they go wrong, try optimism, Garshick tells Medscape. When positive things happen, whether it’s an excellent patient encounter or the office did something really well together, highlight it so everyone has a sense of accomplishment. If a patient compliments a medical assistant or raves about a nurse, share those compliments with the employees so that not every encounter you have calls out problems and staff missteps.

Suppose partners have a conflict with one another or are arguing over something. In that case, you may need to mediate or invest in a meaningful intervention so people can reflect on the narrative they’re contributing to the culture.

5. Practice Self-Care

Finally, the work of a physician is exhausting, so it’s crucial to practice personal TLC. That may mean taking micro breaks, getting adequate sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising well and managing stress to maintain energy levels and patience.

“Sometimes, when I’m fed up with the office, I need to get away,” Montgomery says. “I’ll take a day to go fishing, golfing, and not think about the office.” Just a small break can shift the lens that you see through when you return to the office and put problems in perspective.

Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City–based journalist who covers health, relationships, trends, and issues of importance to women. She’s also a longtime professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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