Toxic Me, Toxic Thee? Why Sterile Processing Struggles to Overcome Broken Workplace Cultures


Recently we conducted an interview with Leslie Kronstedt BSHCA, CRCST, CHL, CIS, President-Elect of the Western Wisconsin Chapter of IAHCSMM and Sterile Processing thought-leader on the topic of toxic teams in our industry. Her interview transcript below shines a much needed light on the daily challenges many frontline Sterile Processing technicians and leaders encounter in their daily mission to #FightDirty, not #FightEachOther. We welcome your feedback and insights on what our industry can do to recover workplace cultures that actually...work.


1) (Beyond Clean) You did a recent poll of your Sterile Processing connections on LinkedIn regarding toxic workplaces. What did you ask, and what did the response tell you about our industry?

(Leslie Kronstedt) Posing the simple question, "Have you worked in a setting you experienced as toxic?" -- the results confirm that an astonishing 95% of respondents have worked in a setting they viewed as toxic. This comes as a relief to many that they are not alone. Today, workplace cultures have embraced unattainable expectations, demands to do more with less, ill-prepared leaders at the helm, and placing cookie-cutter appreciation methods at employees' feet. The result has left employees overworked, underpaid, insecure, cynical, and out of options. Employees spend most of their day at work wanting a work environment that they can feel secure about. Their purpose for working in sterile processing is to provide patients with better outcomes. Toxic environments, however, can disillusion that purpose. When toxic creates more toxic, the question becomes how do you stop the cycle? With only 5% of respondents confirming that they have not experienced a toxic setting, chances are high you would leave one toxic setting for another. Professionals want to know how to fix the toxic workplace or find ways to cope.


2) (Beyond Clean) What are some warning signs that your workplace may be toxic (or becoming toxic)?

(Leslie Kronstedt) Employees desperately want to feel valued and appreciated for the work they perform. When they don't feel valued, they become discouraged and taken advantage of, lose their sense of purpose, call in sick more often, or come in late to work. A dislike of their work will result in policies and procedures not being followed; and likely a decrease in productivity. Employee theft and broken equipment may increase as well. Negative attitudes flourish, and irritability generates tensions that create an environment which further drives up employee turnover.


When evaluating whether your workplace may be "toxic" ask yourself these questions:

  • Do hidden agendas characterize inter-department communications?

  • Do decision-making issues not get addressed openly?

  • Does the team or shared departments seldom work together to reach shared goals?

  • Do leaders have a pattern of saying one thing but doing another?

  • Does everyone feels pressured to process work faster than what is safe?

  • Do employees and managers view each other as solely there to get a job done without interest in getting to know each other personally?

  • Are rules and procedures are largely ignored?

  • Can you say apathy, cynicism, and lack of hope mark the atmosphere of the work environment?

If you see a trend of "Yes" answers to those questions, then your environment is or likely will be on its way to becoming toxic.


3) (Beyond Clean) What role do department leaders play in guarding their technicians from the impact of toxic employees or customers?

(Leslie Kronstedt) Department leaders have the power to set the tone and control the culture of their environment. The customers of the operating room, from the doctors to the nurses, have strong personalities that often clash when any one of the countless imperative details of a patient's case doesn't fall into place. Tensions run high when patient safety is on the line. The Sterile Processing department leader needs to be both diplomatic and a problem solver while keeping everything running smoothly between these kinds of high stress scenarios. A standout leader will not jump right to placing blame. Their first reaction is to research the facts and implement the steps necessary to learn from the error and implement it immediately, which is vital for keeping shared goals of various coordinating departments united. You don't want departments competing against each other.


A leader will identify and defend their staff from toxic behavior. Department leaders from lead technicians all the way up the chain are critical resources for guarding technicians from the impact of toxic employees by being among the employees in the trenches. By spending time on the floor, they can become aware of the staff who are not pulling their weight or pushing responsibilities onto other technicians. They will also be able to identify personality conflicts of employees who gossip, and begin working within the department's leadership chain of command to handle issues before they get worse.


4) (Beyond Clean) What, if anything, can co-workers do to push back against toxic teammates and bosses?

(Leslie Kronstedt) Motivating your teammates and bosses to change can be a delicate task indeed. There are two approaches to this. Think of the stick and the carrot analogy. With the carrot approach, you will need to confront this individual about their toxic behavior by bringing evidence. Be prepared to provide specific information about the time, place, and setting in which you saw or heard the behavior occur. If this has happened multiple times, explain it's not the first time, but this is the most recent. You don't want to make them go on the defense more than they already will be. Open your discussion and close by saying that you value your working relationship together.


When the person makes an effort to change and does things correctly, do the same thing. Tell them that you witnessed them handling the situation differently and that you appreciate that. Every opportunity the co-worker takes in shifting the toxic behavior needs to be recognized and pointed out. Having their positive growth pointed out will reinforce the behavior change, and they will feel rewarded and gratified. You can't expect perfection or immediate change as old habits can be hard to break, so be patient and keep encouraging them.


On the other hand, some individuals view kindness as a weakness. This is when the stick approach is needed to promote change with co-workers not willing to take feedback. Now you will need to establish limits and boundaries. Tell them your expectations based on policies, guidelines, and performance standards, for example. Perhaps goals need to be set. (This will vary depending on what is occurring) If the behavior continues, it may become necessary to issue an injunction that you will escalate the situation to the next level with management or human resources. Fear of reprisal can be a powerful motivator. Depending on the individual, either the carrot or stick can create the change needed to combat a toxic co-worker or boss.


5) (Beyond Clean) How do we keep from becoming toxic ourselves?

(Leslie Kronstedt) The most significant starting points to avoid becoming toxic are recognizing the heavy responsibilities we all carry working in healthcare. A toxic work environment becomes a heavy burden that makes you bitter and angry with time. Nurture that inner self peace and keep perspective. Over time, if you're not leaving, you need to develop tough skin but don't let resentment poison your personality.


It would help if you learned to embody positivity. We cannot control the actions of others; therefore, it is pointless to limit our positivity by focusing on the negative actions of others.

Anxiety can affect performance at work, the quality of the work, relationships with colleagues, and relationships with supervisors. If you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, then these challenges may prove even more difficult. All of this adds up to potentially making you a toxic individual.


Many workplaces offer counseling through employee assistance programs (EAPs) or connect you to mental health resources to help manage anxiety and the pressures of the workplace. Taking responsibility for your wellness by managing anxiety builds more solid relationships, improves communication, and makes you feel more comfortable at work.


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Thanks for reading this interview. If you have more ideas for frontline Sterile Processing interviews or have your own story to tell, please email us at info@beyondclean.net. We'd love to talk! Until next time, keep #FightingDirty!


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