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Your first... upset member of staff

Knowing how to act when a member of staff is upset can be vital, as Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones explains

Knowing how to act when a member of staff is upset can be vital, as Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones explains

Staff members get upset at work for many reasons including:

  • interpersonal conflict or bullying (by patients or colleagues)
  • unreasonable expectations (ditto)
  • systems failure
  • excessive workload
  • difficulty doing the job (attitude or skills gap)
  • perceived unfairness
  • personal worries
  • illness or depression
  • personal/character traits

You may discover someone complaining, crying, making dramatic assertions or gestures or even acting aggressively. Our natural response may be to try to help, or to ignore them because we feel uncertain, embarrassed or irritated.

What you do next depends on who or what has upset them and whether you can or should cope with the situation.

If a patient has been rude, you can show empathy and support, and if you have witnessed the episode you may decide to speak to the patient yourself. However, there are two sides to every story, and although practices should back up their staff, it is probably better if this is handled by a partner or the practice manager. If the problem is interpersonal conflict in the practice, beware of being drawn in as this could make your position very difficult, and there could be employment law implications, for example accusations of bullying at work, discrimination or sexual harassment.

If someone has personal worries, just listening may be welcomed, but you may not want to or be able to offer ongoing support. You may also feel compromised if asked to keep confidences where the person's work performance is affected.

If something you have said or done personally is the cause of the upset, apologise. Whether you (or the other person) tell your trainer should depend on how serious the matter was, whether it has been easily and satisfactorily resolved, and whether there could be any repercussions. You may feel that a staff member is over-reacting, unjustifiably blaming you, criticising you to other staff members, or undermining your relationship with patients. Try to control your temper and your tongue; keep contemporaneous notes in case you need them later.

Consider debriefing with your trainer, or talking to another partner, the practice manager, your course organiser, the deanery or a trusted friend or relative, whichever seems most appropriate, before taking any action. You should also reflect on what happened and identify any related learning needs.

If you are really struggling, there are helplines for doctors, or consult your own GP or the occupational health service.

Dr Melanie Wynne Jones is a GP in Marple, Cheshire

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