Rules for the Medical Office Break Room

June 19, 2012

The break room is the one place people can go for a reprieve from the demands of a busy medical practice. All too often, though, it's a mess. Here are a few tips to help stem the chaos.

"Your mother doesn't work here, please clean up after yourself."

You've probably seen those words posted in a staff lounge more than once in your career. But could you be the person they're directed at?

The coffee room is the one place people can go for a reprieve from the chaos of a busy hospital or medical practice. It's meant to be an oasis of calm; a sanctuary where staff can relax, regroup, refuel and refresh.

All too often, though, simply walking through the door of the coffee room leads to remorse rather than repose. Why? Because it's a mess. Being greeted by a glut of empty food containers, old magazines, used stir sticks, and microwave muck will spoil anyone's serenity, never mind their appetite.

But the issue doesn't stop there. Fridge rot, food theft, and (dare I say it?) flossing are ongoing problems in the common room. Add to that empty coffee pots, sugar-crusted countertops, and tables that look like toddlers just had a food fight, and you've got a room full of unhappy clinicians.

Yet the headaches continue. Despite cryptic notices on fridge doors announcing weekly cleanouts, anonymous food containers continue to go unclaimed. Covert operations aimed at identifying the culprits who constantly help themselves to other people's sodas and sandwiches, lead nowhere. Staff meetings with the sole intention of addressing the problem repeat themselves, to no avail.

And through it all, the same people clean up after everyone else. In every clinic and every unit of every hospital in every state there is a core group of individuals who simply can't stand the mess. And, though your mother doesn't work there, they do, and they keep the place pristine - even though it's not in their job description. On behalf of all of them … enough already! It's time for you to help manage the maelstrom by following these coffee room courtesies:

1. Do a crumby job. If you've made toast, eaten a sandwich, cut a donut in half, or broken a cookie, clean up the crumbs. This means getting a damp cloth and wiping down the surface on which the crumbs are, not just sweeping them on to the floor with your hand. Put the crumbs in the trash and rinse the cloth when finished.

2. Don't be a fridge magnet. Fuzzy food in shared refrigerators is both unhygienic and unappetizing. It's also unnecessary. Label your containers and take personal responsibility for disposing of your uneaten food before it begins to decompose. Regularly replace outdated condiments and dairy products, and pitch fruits and vegetables that are past their prime. Don't even think of ingesting food that doesn't belong to you, unless it's clearly marked for group consumption.

3. Primp yourself elsewhere. Filing your nails, picking your teeth, doing your hair, inspecting the interior of your nose, and all other personal grooming activities should take place in the privacy of the restroom. These are intimate, private actions that cause other people discomfort when performed in public, especially in places where people are eating.

4. Cull the clutter. Routinely recycle outdated reading material and clear cupboards and drawers of the myriad cups, plastic cutlery, and fast-food containers that naturally accumulate. Remove holiday knick-knacks as soon as appropriate, and take down birthday and other decorations when the celebration is over. Throw away leftover cake and goodies before they get stale.

5. Zero in on zapping. Communal microwave ovens are a leading cause of disharmony. From caked on crud to olfactory aftermath, no other kitchen appliance leads to such lingering concerns. Before pushing the start button, consider whether your food will be odiferous, explosive, or offensive. There's nothing like the smell of reheated fish, overcooked broccoli, or burned microwave popcorn to ruin a room. And if your food splatters, clean the inside of the microwave before the projectiles congeal.

6. Look up and say hello. Coffee rooms are transient places. Often, you will never have met some of the people who gather there. Still, it's important to greet people and be cordial. It's also vital to do your part to make sure that the staff lounge doesn't become the staff gossip pit. Dining and diatribe are poor tablemates; don't get involved.

Follow these suggestions and you will gain a spotless coffee room reputation. Now you can sit down, relax, and enjoy your break. Just remember to put a fresh pot of coffee on for the next person!

Sue Jacques is The Civility CEO™, a veteran Forensic Medical Investigator turned Corporate Civility Consultant who helps individuals and businesses gain confidence, earn respect and create courteous corporate cultures. www.TheCivilityCEO.com.