If your best friend won’t tell you what do you do? A different problem.
“I’m feeling a little bit under the weather”. Another vague absence. Karen was good team member, a hard worker and, with the exception of a couple of days a month, punctual and reliable. The principal and the practice manager didn’t know what to do; they had tried the usual approaches mixing concern and compassion but had got nowhere.
A recent survey of 10,000 office workers has found that most one-off sickies are due to hangovers with “just hating the job” coming in second. Neither was the case with Karen, she never drank and clearly enjoyed her career.
“Alun, I wonder could you do her appraisal when you’re next visiting the practice? We’re struggling with what to do about her absences.” Sometimes a different face, voice or ear will bring results. This time was a success and I was able to get to the heart of Karen’s problem. I found her to be a sensitive soul, caring and concerned but in the horns of a dilemma.
The practice consisted of six surgeries with one principal, four full and part-time associates and part-time three hygienists. They operated an egalitarian system where, in order to ensure their were no opportunities for favourites or cliques, the nurses moved around on what appeared to be a fairly complicated rota. This way they worked with associates, principal, hygienists, did their turn in the LDU and had a share of being a “float”.
It turned out that Karen’s absences always coincided with her being due to work with Pam, one of the associates. Pam was experienced, had worked in a variety of practices, hospital departments and had also had a spell working in the community. It was acknowledged she could be a bit brusque with both patients and nurses, but her work was good, she ran to time and grossed well. She was recently divorced, had no children and lived alone.
I managed to get to the heart of things when I met Karen. She was under the impression that the visiting Business Coach was there to see her for some sort of disciplinary matter but I soon disabused her of this and she relaxed. We proceeded with her appraisal, which went well, and having gained her confidence I introduced the matter of her absences. She eventually shared with me the fact that Pam suffered from what used to be labelled as “B.O.” - in other words she was smelly. All the nurses were aware of it but for some reason Karen was particularly sensitive and had needed to run to the toilet to be sick the last time that she worked with Pam. She had now got herself into a real state in case the same thing happened again. She had started to believe that she was the one with the problem and hence the absences.
When I asked the principal and the practice manager they both admitted to having noticed Pam’s odour but had presumed that it was a rare event. Bromhidrosis or body odour, is a common phenomenon in post-pubertal individuals and can rarely become pathologic if it interferes with the life of the individual concerned.
So far, so good we had a diagnosis, but how to treat the problem?
As I was there, and Pam was there that day, it was felt that there would be less of an embarrassment if I were to broach the subject with her. Fine I thought, the client is always right and I have to earn my corn. It wasn’t something that I had done before and I am all for new experiences, if it went badly then I would get the blame and could walk away for another three months.
We met after work and I gave myself 15 minutes to achieve the objectives which were, to point out to Pam as subtly but effectively that there had been comments, to find out if she realised that there might be a problem and then work out a way to deal with it.
Her reaction, thankfully, was not one of denial or to attempt to blame someone for “sneaking” on her. She was horrified and visibly upset. It turned out that she had rather “let herself go” (her words) following her divorce and some days it was all she could do to drag herself out of bed and often didn’t get round to showering or bathing. She wore a tunic at work but wore it over clothes and we agreed that a change to scrubs might help. Most, but not all, of the clinicians wore them and as they were laundered by the practice it removed any home washing. An easier conversation than I feared with, hopefully, a positive result.
When I checked in with the practice owner during our regular coaching calls Pam had obviously had a bit of an awakening. The odour problem had gone and she had taken ownership of the problem by taking the time to ask each nurse at the start of her next session with them to please tell her if there was any recurrence.