top of page

Healthcare Starts with Self-Care: Taking Care of Your Sterile Processing People

Hand of a drowning person reaching out of the water

I spent a few hours of my birthday this year lying on a bed in an emergency room with unexplainable chest pains, dizziness, and blood pressure that was through the roof. I had just returned from a multisite consulting project focused on sterile processing compliance and efficiency, and was preparing for another busy week in the home office with phone calls, podcast recordings, and various writing projects, among a host of other things. In short, it was a normal week, whatever normal means these days.

Anyone who has worked five minutes in a busy sterile processing department knows the kind of stress, fatigue, and mental and physical burden that many of us in the industry carry with us every day. Whether it’s equipment issues (such as broken cart washers), critical process breakdowns, OR delays, lost instrumentation needed for a case right now, or staffing drama that begins to block out the sun, our line of work is definitely not one for the faint of heart (literally and metaphorically).

So how do we cope? How can we lead our teams and protect our teammates from the physical and mental burnout that can so easily overtake sterile processing professionals? Here are a few ideas that will help you guard your most valuable asset—your people.

Don’t build a tower on one stone: cross-train for safety and sanity

More than 50% of the sterile processing managers who I have seen fail have done so because an overabundance of work and responsibility had been placed on one person with no support structure in place to share the burden of leading a department to success, every shift, every day. Even the most skilled and passionate leaders will eventually reach a breaking point and will either throw in the towel or continue on in a mental state that makes them unable to lead a team the way it deserves. This scenario is not only true for department managers, it can impact any person on your SPD team who bears an unreasonable weight of mental or physical strain: supervisors, lead techs, specialists, preceptors, and front-line technicians.

One of the best ways to release the pressure of these roles is to intentionally spread around and delegate duties that can be done by other competent members of your team. For instance, even though the manager has always done the supply ordering for your department, if there are other team members who can be trained to do this well, why not allow them to grow in their own responsibilities and reduce that mental stack of things to do from your own list? If you see your quality assurance technician getting overwhelmed in keeping up with your documentation logs, train a per diem employee as a backup when needed. These kinds of decisions help create a culture where team members are not afraid to ask for help and teammates become more accustomed to giving it.

Robot vs. Robert: what happens at home doesn’t stay at home

As much as we all would like to think we can leave our home life at the front door of the department, many times it is impossible to do so. Medical bills piling up from an extended stay in the NICU for your infant son and rising rent on the apartment that is already too small for your growing family can impact any number of aspects of how we feel and behave at work.

Are we short with our co-workers? Do we complain about changes in processes that we’ve never had an issue with before? Are we tired or stressed nearly every day when we clock in? You may not even notice the warning signs that these stressors can show in your demeanor, but it’s likely the people in your department will.

Whether you are the department leader or a concerned co-worker, it is critically important to keep the personhood of your team members front and center at all times. You don’t have six robots on first shift, you have Robert, Susan, Leyla, Reno, Daniel, and Arlene, and every one of them has a home life that could be impacting their work life. Dealing with this reality doesn’t mean you have to turn your break room into a studio set for Dr. Phil or add a psychiatrist’s chair to your manager’s office, but it does mean that your people are people, and their problems are important to them. Cultivating relationships across the department that value and recognize the complexity of home life will encourage kindness, understanding, and even grace amid the already stressful world of SPD work. You may spend more waking hours with these people than anyone else in their lives, so remember to make the most of it.

Showing up and showing off: healthy and happy employees make the best employees

While it’s no secret, it’s easy to forget that healthy and happy employees make the best employees. You may think your job description doesn’t have anything to do with what your people eat for lunch or how much physical activity they log on a weekly basis, and in one sense you’re right. No one voted you Big Brother of SPD, and personal health decisions will always be that—personal. On the other hand, you can and should do things as a department that promote a healthy mind and body among your staff. Policies are important and good procedures are imperative for safe patient care, but without healthy healthcare heroes in SPD, who will do the critical work of #FightingDirty for your patients? Creative events, such as a weekly step challenge where technicians can submit their total steps for that week from their pedometers and Fitbits, or monthly Healthy Pot Lucks that showcase healthy meal options for your team, are just a couple ideas for showing your team that you care about them and their health.

In the ultimate mission to become weapons of mass microbial destruction in the fight against infections, we cannot afford to let ourselves or our teams self-destruct under the weight of stress and unhealthy lifestyles. Take a moment today to reflect on your own opportunities for better self-care, and consider ways to cultivate this priority among your team.

You, your family, and your patients will thank you.

Take care and keep fighting dirty.


bottom of page