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Coping with a complaint

As a profession, nurses have to accept that they might be the subject of a complaint at some point during their career – and managers should ensure that a robust support and counselling system is in place for affected staff.

 

As a profession, nurses have to accept that they might be the subject of a complaint at some point during their career – and managers should ensure that a robust support and counselling system is in place for affected staff

I have been on the receiving end of a complaint from a patient. Whether or not the complainant was justified is not for discussion in this piece. What is, though, is how utterly devastating, disturbing and lonely it feels to be the recipient of such harsh criticism.


Nurses are far more feted than being complained about – and used
to receiving ‘thank yous’ in the form of chocolates. Picture: iStock

As cancer nurses, we are far more used to being feted than being complained about. While I have never done so, I have always wanted to conduct a study looking at the quantity and quality of chocolates oncology nurses receive during their working week and compare my findings to the general medical wards’ haul.

Not for us the discounted tin of chocolates at Christmas. We are used to gorging on far more expensive brands. The walls of our chemotherapy suites and oncology wards are festooned with heartfelt thank-you letters. Patients and relatives jump out of planes to raise money for our appeals, and we happily go to Rotary club dinners to collect oversized cheques.

Emotional and psychological effect

Nursing is a career that I have taken great pride in so receiving a complaint was really upsetting for me. My hospital immediately put into motion a fact-finding mission. Statements were taken quickly and thoroughly from all parties and an excellent response was written by the complaints office. However, I did not anticipate the emotional and psychological effect this complaint would have on me.

Writing the witness statements was easy. I simply recorded what happened. It was almost therapeutic to do so. But I had not bargained for just how intrusive thinking about this complaint would be.

‘I stopped sleeping properly, felt insecure at work, continually questioned my own decisions and began to feel the physical symptoms associated with stress’

Insecure and stressed

I stopped sleeping properly, felt insecure at work, continually questioned my own decisions and generally began to feel the physical symptoms associated with stress.

For several weeks, despite working with a great team, no one asked how I was coping. Perhaps they assumed I would not be adversely affected by something that is becoming more commonplace (and on the increase since the Francis report of 2013). I imagine that I had given the impression that I was absolutely fine; I felt that to publicly admit my distress would somehow be an admission of guilt. A few people said that we must not take such things personally and I agreed. But, inside I was taking it personally.

Therefore, I ask readers to consider colleagues who are the subject of a complaint.

‘A few people said that we must not take such things personally and I agreed. But, inside I was taking it personally’

Kind word or note

A complaint being made does not mean the person is guilty. If that person is feeling the way I felt, a kind word or note, or even a bar of chocolate, would go a long way. They may not be able to speak to you about the nature of the complaint for confidentiality reasons, but they may appreciate your gesture of support.

And if you are their manager, then please ensure that a robust, formal support and counselling system is in place for affected staff members.

As a profession, we have to accept that for all sorts or reasons, most of us will be the subject of a complaint sometime during our career.

‘They may not be able to speak to you about the nature of the complaint for confidentiality reasons, but they may appreciate your gesture of support’

In 2015, following a worrying number of suicides, the General Medical Council published a study into the impact of complaints on doctors and found that they led to defensive practice, unnecessary investigations and avoidance behaviour (staying away from difficult situations) and caused depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

We can apply these findings to the nursing profession. Hospitals need to establish a formal support network for nurses who, for whatever reason, find themselves the subject of a formal complaint.


The author’s name and details have been withheld

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