Mar 23, 2015

Addressing Distractions in the Workplace to Improve Patient Safety Outcomes

By Bette McNee, RN, NHA, Clinical Risk Management Consultant
In the health and human services industry today, practitioners such as doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and other types of caregivers are required to deliver personalized care in environments that are filled with distractions at every turn. Whether a nurse in a hospital or a psychiatrist in a behavioral health facility, constant concentration in required for practitioners to deliver exceptional care and prevent mistakes that can threaten patients’ safety.

The correlation between caregivers’ ability to concentrate and their performance on the job is well documented. The American Psychological Association has found that shifting between tasks can cost a person up to 40 percent of their productive time due to lapse in train of thought and the difficulty in picking up a task where left off.

The first step to addressing this issue is identifying employees that are dealing with Attention Deficit Trait – a term coined to describe work-induced Attention Deficit Disorder. Managers should ask employees three questions: 1) Do you demonstrate a calm demeanor, but have an underlying sense of panic?; 2) Do you feel as though you are burning through tasks at hand and you lack a true feeling of accomplishment or success with larger projects or initiatives?; 3) Do you have difficulty in tackling big tasks or initiatives or have difficulty in finding a creative way to approach a big task or initiative?

Practitioners that answer yes to these questions will benefit from tips for combatting inattention in the workplace. Common tips include: minimizing distractions, working in comfortable surroundings, reducing stress, prioritizing tasks based on attention level and taking frequent breaks. The majority of this advice, while sound, is not always the most realistic, given the working conditions in the health and human services industry.

Distractions are entrenched in environments such as hospitals, long-term care facilities and behavioral health facilities. Listening and responding to patient alarms, call bells, phone calls, emails, overhead pages and family questions – although very important – are not planned activities and therefore are distracting when they occur.
What about the feasibility of the other common tips for fighting inattention? Unfortunately, much of the other advice can be ruled out as well. Working in a comfortable setting may not be feasible, as practitioners providing care for patients typically work in shared areas. Also, practitioners do not always have the ability to prioritize work according to their own level of attention during shifts, as patients’ care is often on a set schedule or immediate-need basis.

Despite these challenges, there are steps professionals in caregiving roles can take to increase their ability to concentrate. It’s important to discuss with employees in the health and human services industry how interruptions can affect their concentration and impact patient safety and to arm them with actionable advice for addressing inattention in the workplace.

Tips for Addressing Inattention:

  • Stay hydrated and nourished. Small amounts of caffeine can improve alertness without disrupting sleep. The recommended standard is to drink eight 8 oz. glasses of water and eat well-balanced, healthy meals.
  • Take “no-concentration” breaks. When taking a break during the day, it is recommended that caregivers not use mobile devices or complete tasks that require any concentration. These short breaks from concentrating will allow their minds to rest and be restored before having to focus again on their jobs.
  • Prepare for work. Right before beginning their shift, caregivers should take a few minutes to relax. Time to clear their minds before will help them prepare for long periods of needed concentration.
  • Be active. Studies indicate aerobic exercise improves mental function, and the practice of yoga and meditation yields positive mental benefits as well. Many companies have found that providing employees with access to an exercise room with stationary bikes or treadmills during the workday is beneficial to employees.
  • Complete brain exercises. Games such as Sudoku or word searches have been shown to aid in concentration levels.
  • Stop worrying. Worry, anxiety and other emotions affect one’s ability to concentrate. Encourage caregivers to set aside time in their lives to deal with those emotions.
  • Use the “Do Not Disturb” settings on chat and email. Encouraging employees to use this setting when doing work on the computer can help ensure they can concentrate on the task at hand.

Interruptions and distractions can break concentration and result in inattention to critical tasks. In addition, distractions decrease caregivers’ efficiency and create a perceived heavier work load and a need to be hasty in order to complete all assigned tasks. Managing distractions and increasing employees’ ability to concentrate will result in improved patient safety outcomes and less adverse events.

Bette McNee, RN, NHA
Clinical Risk Management Consultant
The Graham Building
Philadelphia, PA, 19102
215-701-5429
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