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First impressions last the longest

Sue Alexander and Denise Cook write about the workshop session they delivered in the support staff strand at this year’s IBMS Congress.

We both feel very strongly about the value of the support staff worker role and their position as fundamental members of the pathology team. We really emphasised this – as for example, sample reception is absolutely critical to the whole pathway of a sample. We are also aware that these people are usually the first line of contact, or introduction to the laboratory for service users and, in some cases, patients. Therefore, this is where the first impression of the laboratory and, by default, the service is made. The reverse is also true with the laboratory staff member forming an impression of the person who is standing opposite them or on the phone.

Opening discussions

This session was very well attended with good audience participation and feedback. We started by asking the audience about how first impressions are formed, how fast and what influences these. And how fast first impressions are made: in seconds. We also discussed how we make judgements based on these impressions, which works both ways, for example dress, demeanour, tone of voice and other factors.

We talked about the type of people that support staff typically come into contact with by any means, including clinical users, their own colleagues, patients, phlebotomists, external visitors and assessors. We further discussed different forms of communications and which are better or worse. This is really important, as so much information is not able to be transmitted unless face to face. Although there are different estimates of how much information is conveyed by different ways of communicating, over half of communication is physical, for example, body language, gesture, facial expression, rate of breathing. Nearly 40% of communication is conveyed by the voice: tone, pitch, pace, rhythm, volume and quality. Only around 7% of information is in the actual content of the communication. This means we get far more from a face-to-face interaction than from phone calls, intercoms and tannoys. Finally, with emails, texts and letters there is only the actual content of the message to go on. Everyone has sent a message that has been misunderstood, caused offence, confusion or dismay at some point in their life, in and out of work. You can recall an email if you are quick but not a text. Reactions may be very different from what was intended or expected. Teams and Zoom are an interesting halfway house.

“Nearly 40% of communication is conveyed by the voice: tone, pitch, pace, rhythm, volume and quality”

We asked whether anyone in the audience had done any customer service training, as this can be a huge benefit. Staff may have to interact with the busy, the brusque, the demanding, patients who have had bad news, patients who don’t really understand things and people who are having a bad day as well as dealing with things in their own lives and maybe also having a bad day. Sadly, no-one said they had such training, which is a shame and a great omission.

Tips and pointers

We wanted to give a few tips and helpful pointers to take away from the session. These are things like using positive body language, engaging fully with the person you are talking to, showing that you understand their issues, or seeking clarification from them if you don’t.

Also, always remember to be respectful no matter who is involved or what you might think about them; retain your professionalism. Another good pointer is always interacting on an adult–adult basis; try to calm down any heightened emotions. A reminder of diversity training: people may have different mental capacities, not be a native English speaker or be in a troubled state of mind, so always consider these points. Finally, don’t make any assumptions. But do be prepared for anything – including passing on what may be unwelcome news, e.g. a sample has gone missing, as this will not be what someone wants to hear.

Some final reminders as well to always be polite, tell the truth, show restraint, be empathetic and, if needed, escalate a difficult situation upwards. If you have had a tough encounter then talk to someone to get reassurance, calm yourself, get it out of the system and park it at work.

We feel that there is definitely a need to ensure that front-line staff, very often support staff, are properly prepared for this role with training and support.  

Sue Alexander is Head of Core Pathology and Trust Lead Scientist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. Denise Cook is Head of Governance, Quality and Service Improvement at Berkshire and Surrey Pathology Services.

Image credit | Shutterstock

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