Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Full awareness at work

I was walking home after a run last week and decided to take out my earphones.  I usually keep a podcast playing until I walk in the front door of our house, but this time, I thought I would let my own thoughts keep me company.  I was struck by what I noticed when I didn't have something playing in my ears.

I keep the volume low so I can hear bike riders coming up the trail behind me.  Even so, as soon as the earphones came out, I was acutely aware of sounds I had been missing: wind blowing through tall grass, and a small animal in the underbrush.  Hearing the sounds didn't surprise me, but the change in my overall awareness did.  Without earphones, I paid more attention to things I saw along the trail, in addition to things I heard.  Listening to something in earphones had turned my attention inward more than I realized.

I mention this because of a conversation I had last week with a health administrator from another province. We had both noted how some medical personnel seemed to be distracted at work by their various electronic devices.  I have particularly noted that, in Saskatoon's hospitals, some of the housekeeping staff wear earphones while performing their duties.  She told me that the practice had been banned in her health region.

The main concern was around workplace safety.  As I found out after my run last week, not only is your hearing affected, but listening through headphones impairs your overall awareness of your surroundings.  She also mentioned that, even though they are not considered "clinical staff", housekeepers work in patient care areas and may hear (and then respond to) patients in distress.

I wonder if workplace headphones also have a less obvious opportunity cost.  Housekeepers perform an essential role in keeping our facilities clean, safe and functional.  In order to do that, they need access to all areas of the hospital.  As such, they regularly cross paths with staff and patients.  They have the opportunity to greet visitors, answer questions and give directions.

However, if I see someone wearing headphones, I take it as a sign that they don't want to interact.  They're sending a message that they prefer solitude.  I suspect that patients and visitors will make the same assumption if they see hospital staff wearing headphones.  They may hesitate to ask for help.

This no-headphones rationale won't resonate with staff unless they've been explicitly given permission and encouraged to interact with patients and visitors.  Unless housekeeping staff see themselves as goodwill ambassadors, it won't matter whether they wear headphones or not.   And if they don't see themselves in that role, then staff are missing opportunities for joy and satisfaction through richer interaction with our clients, and we're missing the chance to use our staff's talent to full advantage.

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