Difficult physicians, the need for accuracy, lack of communication, inadequate staffing, processing errors and overwork can create the perfect environment for stress to take its toll.  When coupled with a laboratory environment where dealing with human emotion often takes second place to science, the consequences can be dramatic.

This week, ending with 8 November 2019, is International Stress Awareness week, which aims to keep stress high on the international agenda.  The fact that it is also National Pathology Week has not escaped our notice: the pathology lab setting and stress are clearly closely inter-connected.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recently reported that stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem, affecting around 22% of all workers.  They suggest that stress is a factor in between 50 and 60 per cent of all working days lost.  And, interestingly, despite many contradictory theories, workers with permanent contracts (as opposed to temporary) were found to have the highest levels of stress overall.

A number of recent studies, including those by the National Institute of Health Study, Frontiers in Psychology and the National Library of Medicine, have provided fascinating anecdotal evidence.  They reveal that the human distress caused in the lab is extraordinary.

One technician, 54, explains her feelings very clearly: ‘You can work all year doing an excellent job and nobody says anything, then you do one thing wrong and you’ll be vilified.’

Another technician describes the changing work environment: ‘There is a shortage of technicians as a lot of the more experienced ones have retired and new techs don’t have the same work ethic.  Morale in the workplace is low.’

There are also issues with status.  ‘As a Laboratory technician I often feel under-valued by our fellow professionals (doctors, nurses and other providers).  Our voice is often disregarded.’

And technology is also an issue.  ‘When the machine breaks down and I have to troubleshoot while patients are waiting, it means I can’t deliver or release the results on time due to the machine’s mechanical issue and we have no back-up.’

Even more worryingly, Steve makes the following point: ‘They say the right things in healthcare about stress, and there are lots of posters around, but when push comes to shove, the stigma is still there.  If someone does take leave for stress, they are never treated the same again.’

On average, each case of work-related stress in the laboratory leads to 30.9 working days lost.  So, it is easy to see how this is creating huge problems for laboratories working to extreme Turnaround Time pressures.

Set against this bleak background, it is easy to feel helpless.  There are so many problems affecting the laboratory working environment, that a solution seems elusive.  However, there are many who believe a great deal can be achieved by simply doing what we’re doing here, and raising awareness of the issues.  There is no silver bullet, but it has been summed up very cleverly by one of the subjects of the recent studies as follows:

‘More publicity would speak volumes to the understanding of the vital role we play in health care.  If more people understood our profession, we would not be the brunt of cuts when finances dictate, thus allowing the managers to focus more on the people perhaps.’