By Dr. Julie Lavender, From the April 2019 AMT Journal of Continuing Education Topics & Issues
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Soft Skills for Hard Jobs
Soft skills. Employability. Social intelligence. Interpersonal skills. These are some buzz terms I hear from potential employers regarding attributes that they are looking for when hiring new employees. Many employers say that if a potential employee has “this” certificate or “that” degree, then they know that the candidate has the technical or “hard” skills to perform required tasks of the job. Hard skills are acquired through formal education such as a college program, an apprenticeship, or other job-specific training. A skill set that is more difficult to define and one that potential employees often lack is in the realm of intangible skills: communication, time management, teamwork, etc. So, how does one acquire or develop those skills? Here are some of the top “soft skills” that employers are looking for, along with pointers to develop or strengthen them.
A review of several articles on the topic of soft skills identified the following skills as those most commonly sought after by employers:
- Work Ethic
- Time Management
In addition to those skills, the following skills were also identified as important in the health professions:
- Attention to detail
- Positive attitude
- The ability to deal with pressure or criticism.
Teamwork, by definition, is working well with others, as a team, to accomplish a specific task or achieve a broader goal. Seems simple enough. However, as a people, we have become more and more independent minded and in many cases, prefer to work in solitude. On the other hand, many jobs, especially those in healthcare, require some degree of teamwork.
Teamwork is more than just working as a member of a team. In a clinic, you may be part of a team that includes medical assistants, technicians, and providers. As a member of that team, you are expected to perform certain functions. However, being a team player means stepping up when an emergency transpires and filling in the gaps. It is stepping in to do something that needs to be done, whether it is your job or not. Teamwork can also include building up your colleagues and offering a helping hand when someone is having a bad day.
If teamwork is a skill that you need to develop, there are several ways to do that. In the work environment, look for opportunities to demonstrate your willingness and ability to be a team player. Outside of work, you can volunteer for an organization or project that requires teamwork—school PTA, church committee, professional organization (like AMT), etc. This may require you to step outside of your comfort zone, but the payoff can be a more pleasant work environment and opportunities for advancement, or possibly a different job.
Communication is the ability to transfer information from one person to another (or to a group of people) via written or spoken word. Communication also includes the ability to listen attentively and convey non-verbal messages appropriately. In addition to being able to communicate effectively, professional communication is a must. Most college degree programs require a composition class and many also require a speech class. Although writing and speaking formally may not be a requirement of a particular job, the ability to communicate is a necessity in the workforce. In healthcare, employees must learn to communicate with other members of the health team including peers, physicians and other ancillary personnel. Health professionals must also communicate effectively with patients and sometimes with their family members. Therefore, communication is a critical skill for health professionals.
Developing good communication skills can be a challenge. For many people, the idea of writing a paper or giving a speech can be a daunting task. There is only one way to improve communication skills and that is through practice. For starters, if you have not taken a communication class, you may want to look for one. Classes may be taken at your local college or online. There are also many, less-formal, continuing education courses available to improve communication skills.
To practice those skills beyond the classroom, try writing an article for your newsletter or an AMT state society journal. Even if it isn’t accepted for publication, it gets you practice writing. There may be opportunities at work to teach a short in-service. Volunteer to do that and get practice with your verbal communication skills. Any chance you have to practice communication will not only improve your skills but will also build up your resume.
3. Work ethic
Work ethic is taking responsibility for your job and having pride in what you do. It includes the basics of showing up on time, completing assigned tasks, and having good attendance. Having a strong work ethic also means going above and beyond what is expected of you and doing the job without constant supervision to ensure you are performing as expected. An employee with a strong work ethic can be trusted to get the job done, on time, every time.
Work ethic is not a skill that you can learn by sitting in a classroom or reading a book. However, it is a skill that can be developed through practice. Work ethic starts with a positive attitude. I start my day with a devotional and I have a quote displayed in my office that encourages an attitude of positivity. I encourage you to look for something to do or read at the beginning of your day to start on a positive note.
Going back to teamwork, another way to demonstrate work ethic is by taking on tasks that may not necessarily be your job, but they will benefit everyone—look for those opportunities. An underlying motivation for work ethic is pride. Pride in your job, pride in your employer/organization, and pride in your profession will drive you to do good work. Spend some time reflecting on this concept of pride. If you don’t feel pride in your work, try to identify why that is. Can you do something to improve your sense of pride?
It should be pretty obvious to most health professionals that flexibility is a required skill. Many healthcare workers are required to work different shifts and to be on-call for additional shifts. An employee who demonstrates flexibility will be valued by employers. However, being flexible doesn’t mean giving up family and other responsibilities. There will be times when you will have to say no, but the more flexibility you can demonstrate the better.
Adaptability is the ability to change based on circumstances. A new boss, new rules, new computer software — all these things require you to adapt. In most instances involving work, you cannot change the circumstances, but you can change how you respond. Demonstrating adaptability can also contribute to your image as a team player.
Flexibility and adaptability are skills that usually come with experience. Sure, some people do have personalities that are inherently more flexible/adaptable. Most of us, though, develop these skills through experience. As I said earlier, you usually cannot change your circumstances in the work setting. With experience, you realize that the job is more pleasant when you can adapt to changing circumstances.
5. Time management
Time management is just that – managing your time. What does it mean to manage your time? Yes, it does mean getting your work done in a timely manner. It also means balancing your time. You can’t just work, work, work and never take a break without getting burned out. That is not to say there won’t be days like that! On the other hand, you can’t socialize all day either, and be surprised at the end of the day that you didn’t accomplish much. In most work settings today, hourly employees have strict limits on working overtime. If you consistently have to work overtime because you have poor time management skills, then you will not get ahead and could lose your job.
There are a plethora of seminars and lectures on time management. A quick YouTube search revealed an abundance of free self-improvement videos on time management. So, there is a lot of information to be gathered on time management. The more difficult step is putting those skills into practice. If you are someone who struggles with time management, you will need to be very intentional about changing your habits. There are time management apps available for smart phones and fitness devices. I found one just the other day for my Fitbit. Basically, it tells me to focus on a task for 25 minutes without interruption and then take a 15-minute break. This cycle continues throughout the day to ensure that you not only get your job done, but you also balance your work with essential break time. I encourage you to do some searching for the right tools that fit your personality and lifestyle and then jump in and start managing your time. Maybe you just start with an hour or two every day, but eventually you will be a good time manager.
Empathy is a critical skill for healthcare workers, especially regarding patient care. Empathy, unlike sympathy, is more than just feeling sorry for another person. It is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and truly understand how they are feeling. Empathy goes hand in hand with communication. You must have good listening skills to perceive someone else’s emotional state and then be able to respond appropriately to those emotions. Some healthcare employers are starting to look for empathy, or emotional intelligence, when hiring physicians, nurses, and other health professionals.
The first step to improve this skill is to understand your own emotions. How do you typically respond to various situations? Next, when you are met with an emotional response from a coworker or patient, pause and put yourself in that person’s shoes. Try to really understand how he or she is feeling and develop an appropriate response. Sometimes the only response another person needs is just to hear that you are listening.
Self-confidence, as an employee, means being confident in your ability to do your job. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, employers are confident in your technical skills because of the credentials you earned in a training program. But are you confident in yourself? When you perform a skill on a patient, are you demonstrating assurance in your ability to perform the skill? The answer should be “yes”!
There are a couple of other things to consider regarding self-confidence. First, self-confidence does not mean that you know everything. Actually, you should have enough self-confidence to know when you need to ask questions or for assistance. To me, the most dangerous co-worker is the one who thinks he or she can do everything without ever needing help… until an accident happens. Self-confidence is also the ability to confidently speak up, especially when patient safety may be in jeopardy. It is a critical skill that healthcare professionals develop with experience.
8. Attention to detail
Another important “soft skill” to explore is attention to detail. It is the concept of dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. There are many tasks in healthcare that require meticulous attention to detail—administering medications, labeling specimens, and assisting with procedures to name a few. Failure to pay attention to detail may result in errors and/or injury to a patient. Medical errors are preventable and sadly, they now rank as the third leading cause of death in the United States (Heron, 2018). Not all medical errors result from failing to pay attention to detail, but many of them do.
Take medication administration as an example. There are now eight rights to follow to safely administer medications: right patient, right medication, right dose, right route, right time, right documentation, right reason, and right response (Bonsall, 2011). Failure to follow one or more of these rights often leads to medication errors. By simply paying attention to these details, thousands of medication errors could be prevented every year. Lives could be saved. This may be the most critical “soft skill” for healthcare personnel.
9. Positive Attitude
The importance of having a positive attitude was already discussed briefly under the work ethic section. Your attitude effects how you respond. Think about it. Having a positive attitude results in positive responses, even to the most challenging circumstances. Positivity begets positivity. In other words, if you display a positive attitude toward others, you are more likely to get a positive response in return. The first step in developing a positive attitude is eliminating the negative. That may be easier said than done. If you are prone to negativism, try to intentionally listen to yourself. Get in the habit of forming a response in your head before you say it aloud, so you can check whether or not you are being positive. At the end of the work day, try to think about all the positive things that happened and don’t even consider negative events.
10. Ability to deal with pressure and criticism
Some healthcare environments present more pressure than others. If you work in an emergency room or critical care unit, you probably deal with more pressure daily than say someone who works in a podiatrist’s office. However, all of us deal with pressure of some sort and this is another important skill to develop. It is important to control your emotions in the heat of the moment and take a “time out” if you have to after the initial crisis has passed.
Likewise, response to criticism is another critical skill for all employees, especially for those of us in the healthcare industry. As health professionals, we must be able to tolerate criticism from peers, supervisors, and patients/families.
We can all benefit from listening to constructive criticism to improve ourselves. The way you respond to criticism can also have a major impact on how a situation is resolved.
The ability to deal with pressure and criticism can be improved through participation in continuing education sessions on that topic and through self-help activities. Ultimately, it comes down to you and how you choose to respond to pressure and criticism. Take a deep breath, you’ve got this!
The “soft skills” I have presented are not an exhaustive list, but they are enough to get you started. I encourage each of you to conduct your own self-assessment. Identify your areas of strength and weakness in each of these skills. Continue to develop those skills that are strong and find ways to improve the skills that are weak. There are college courses, continuing education offerings, and self-help resources designed to help you identify strategies to improve each of these skills. Development in each of these areas will not only make you a better employee today but could also set you up for future employment possibilities. Remember to document any formal training that you go through as well as examples of how you can perform each of these “soft skills” so that you can include them on your resume and refer to them when you are in an interview.
Bonsall, L. (2011, May 27). 8 rights of medication administration. Retrieved December 6, 2018, from https://www.nursingcenter.com/ncblog/may-2011/8-rights-of-medication-administration
Bortz, D. (n.d.). Soft skills to help your career hit the big time. Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/soft-skills-you-need
Heron, M. (2018). Leading causes for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports, 67(6).
Malenke, K. (n.d.). Important ‘soft skills’ for a job in healthcare developing more than technical skills is an integral factor for success. Retrieved December 6, 2018, from http://www.advanceweb.com/jobs/healthcarenews/career-development-articles/important-soft-skillsfor-a-job-in-healthcare.html
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