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Septic relationships

Author(s): By Eric Keller, BSN, RN

In the emergency department, we’re well trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of serious infections—infections that start from an infinitesimally small and undetectable microorganism and grow into a life-threatening emergency. Spreading like a wildfire by infecting the blood, septicemia eventually spreads throughout the body and begins compromising the vitality of multiple organs until they shut down. Early recognition and intervention are paramount to effectively treat sepsis, so we know to be alert and act swiftly. But what if the infectious process was not in our patients, but in our behaviors and relationships? Would we recognize the signs and symptoms and treat them as aggressively?

Are we prepared to fight the enemies that threaten our workplace? I’m referring to the negative attitudes that cultivate into poor work conditions and result in arguments; the bullying, call-offs, insubordination, and unlimited excuses that inhabit the workplace and degrade our resilience. These threats erode the well-being of the caregivers who are working to help those in need, compromising their performance in and out of the workplace. Sometimes the problems at home subdue our personalities at work. Likewise, the grief of a toxic work environment can yield unparalleled irascibility at home as we deal with family life. Whether the infection originates in the workplace or manifests itself there, rapid intervention provides the best prognosis.

Septic relationships malinger and destroy everything in our lives. There are countless books on relationships, and it’s easy to suggest avoiding a person if they cause you a problem. But what if we are part of the problem? What if it’s our own performance that got us where we are? Can we objectively identify our own attitudes, performance, and failures? Listening to other people is one of the hardest things to do, especially when it brings light to our own actions and insecurities. Stephen Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It’s easy to listen to recognition and praise, but failing to listen to honest feedback in the middle of a stressful situation can result in large barriers to effective communication in the future.

The closest relationships in life develop over time and overcome difficult situations. I know from my service in the military that standing shoulder to shoulder in combat and relying on the person next to you to defend you doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a relationship born in the most uncomfortable and inhabitable places around the world, through countless hours of training. Putting the mission first and subordinating all other selfish thoughts, quickly forges people from various backgrounds into a brotherhood. It’s a relationship that can’t be broken and can endure the toughest travesties of life. I have developed similar relationships with some of my coworkers as we work tirelessly in the emergency department, throughout this pandemic. The stress of home life and the workplace has brought out the best and worst in all of us. It has elicited difficult discussions and even more difficult decisions.

The problem isn’t the situation that we face; it’s our response. Whether it’s an infection in the patient or a disagreement among people, how we collaboratively work together towards the solution is what matters. Respecting individual differences and working through problems, even when they’re difficult, will foster more interpersonal growth and harden the bond of trust between us. As technology has changed the way people communicate, I have watched as people have developed an unbreakable relationship with their phones. I challenge you to have more face time without your phone and connect with the people around you. Take time to listen and understand and try to be part of the solution instead of the infection.

Eric Keller is an RN at University Hospitals Portage Medical Center in Ravenna, Ohio. The views and comments expressed here are the author’s personal opinions and do not represent the views of his employer, University Hospitals (Cleveland).

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