Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Benefits of Storytelling for Stressed-Out Staff

Story has a role to play in every aspect of your business, from external communications to internal functioning.

Some years ago I presented a storytelling program for technical and support staff at a major hospital in Washington, DC. These are the people who operate the technology and shepherd patients through the acute care journey, from the first terrifying admissions interview, through pre-surgical tests and prep, to and from the OR to recovery -- and ultimately to discharge. Their impact on a patient's experience is huge. (You may have experienced the spike of fear aroused by a sullen admissions clerk or the trust that you were in good hands inspired by a gentle touch on your shoulder.) They bear the brunt of the stress in our dysfunctional care system, are on the receiving end of most complaints, and yet they are the forgotten employees.

This was a special event arranged for Secretary's Day. It was held in a conference room usually reserved for hospital board meetings. The door was closed, with instructions not to enter during the two hours of this workshop. The atmosphere was determinedly non-clinical. With meditative music playing; platters of sandwiches, fruit, and cookies on a side table; and a complete absence of supervisors, there would be no mistaking this get-together for a departmental meeting.

I introduced the program: They had probably left home in the morning with everything they would need during the day: wallet, keys, credit cards, coat. Everything, that is, except what mattered most: themselves. Their hopes and worries about their kids; their plan for a dream vacation; the burden of caring for an elderly parent; and all the possibilities and potentials they had given up along the way to create a little security. This time was theirs to tell whatever untold stories they were carrying around, if they wanted. They could also just listen to the music, poetry, and stories I had brought in. Frankly, I wasn't sure how this invitation to more personal relationship would go over in a place like this.

There were 25 participants, and a day-long workshop wouldn't have been too long for them. They were starved for attention, respect, listening. Everyone had a story and together they created a sorrowful documentary of a day in the life of a hospital worker.

One woman, whose job was to transport patients, described the loneliness and fear that she felt constantly in the face of so much suffering. "Sometimes I hug the patients, but it's just as much for myself as it is for them," she said.

The stories moved -- as stories naturally do when people realize they are being heard -- from distress to hope to laughter and finally to transformational action. They shared with one another their dreams of taking night courses to finish college, getting a better job, going to Hawaii, seeing their grandchildren graduate high school. And they collaborated on an employee stress reduction plan to present to administrators.

1. They asked for a quiet room with plants, sofas, and soft music, where they could eat, read, catch a nap, and just relax. They got a small unused storage area.

2. They asked for a weekly support group for any staff who wanted to attend. They got a biweekly one.

3. They asked for more input in the staff weekly newsletter. They got article suggestion boxes in their departments.

But really, they got much more.

This project was only one clear drop in the toxic ocean of our healthcare system, but it changed things a little in one small place. It began with the spark of collective creativity ignited by story.

Imagine what an employee storytelling program could accomplish in your workplace.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserveed.

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