Career advice

Don’t let upsetting remarks affect your focus

How to stay focused and avoid becoming upset by chance remarks or disagreements at work

How to stay focused and avoid becoming upset by chance remarks or disagreements at work


Picture: iStock

My partner Sarah recently came home after a long day on the medical ward where she works. Usually her responses to questions about her shift centre on the predictable themes of being short-staffed and rushed off her feet – a conversation that is no doubt echoed around the country.

But on this particular day her mood was different, and I knew something was irking her. After a glass of wine she began to open up. It turned out that a colleague’s flippant remark during morning handover had unsettled her all shift, making it harder for her to concentrate and truly be there for her patients.

This fellow nurse hadn’t said or done anything wrong, they simply had opposing yet passionate views on something completely unrelated to work (in this case animals). But what this highlighted was how closely nursing teams operate and how conflict of any degree has the potential to affect individuals as well as patient care.

Pressurised environment

In any working environment it is unrealistic to expect groups of staff to get on with each other all the time. This is especially so for nurses, where the pressurised clinical environment and long unsocial hours can see cracks within the team easily grow.

Although it is not always easy, it is good to address issues as they arise rather than letting them fester. As a team, you have to come to a consensus on matters concerning patient care, but when a conflict arises over personal beliefs there is no right or wrong.

It can be even trickier when you are also friends with your colleagues outside of work, as boundaries can become blurred. But you have a responsibility to work cooperatively with each other while on shift, so sometimes the most professional thing is to agree to differ.

Words said in jest

This isn’t a sign of weakness or of ‘letting someone win’, it is just accepting that mid-shift isn’t the time or place for heated debates.

A degree of banter is natural and can be healthy, but try to remember that others may find it harder to switch off from comments seemingly said in jest.

If you are like my partner and find it hard to let go of hurtful or conflicting personal comments, you may find it useful to explore ways of ‘parking’ the emotions that arise.

Years ago, when working on a nurse-led telephone helpline, I attended a training session that looked at what to do when a patient talked about something that triggered a strong response in you, such as bereavement or grief.

Take a deep breath

I’ll never forget how a colleague described how she coped: she metaphorically hit the letter B  on her keyboard to remind herself to breathe. By taking this opportunity to pause, she was able to separate her feelings from what was happening and be present for the caller.

Since then I’ve adapted the letter B to many situations where I’ve recognised that I’m taking things to heart in a way that isn’t helpful.

You obviously aren’t sitting at a computer all day long, so try and think of something you can visualise that would quickly allow you to switch your energy away from the person who is upsetting you and back to what you are doing. And don’t forget to breathe.

This breathing exercise takes just a few minutes and can be done anywhere – sitting, standing or lying down – so is a good one to try if you are feeling stressed at work. The most benefit comes from doing it regularly, so perhaps try and incorporate it into your daily routine. 


Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance journalist and health/life coach

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