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How Iris Found Joy at Work

By Stephen Swensen | Wednesday, February 3, 2016


How Iris Found Joy at Work

There are many myths about joy in work — that it’s solely an HR issue, that it’s all about compensation, that it isn’t fundamental to an organization’s bottom line.

But the data tells a different story. And the stories tell a different story.

Many years ago, when I was Director of Quality for Mayo Clinic, the Discovery Channel came to one of our 24 hospitals to film a documentary on patient safety. They spent much of the afternoon interviewing Dr. Bob Cima, a colorectal surgeon, about all the advances they’d made in reducing infections from colorectal surgery. They were really doing a lot to improve safety for patients.

Then, the documentary director spotted a person down the hallway. It was Iris, a custodian at Mayo. They were interested in finding out what she did on a daily basis, so they walked down the hall and asked her if she’d be willing to answer a few questions. She said, “Sure.”

Technically, Iris’s job was called “environmental services.” She cleaned rooms. She cleaned toilets. That was her job. But when they asked her what she did at Mayo Clinic, she said:

“My job is to save lives.”

Iris had made the connection between saving lives and sanitizing doorknobs, cleaning TV remote controls, and changing sheets in a sanitary way. And, of course, her work did save lives. The better she did it, the more patients left our hospitals safely.

Iris had joy in work. She found the meaning and purpose in her career as a custodian at Mayo Clinic. Her job description didn’t matter anymore. She came to work with a mission, with her colleagues, to save lives.

How did her joy in work improve care for patients? The environmental services team saw surgeons and intensivists with checklists, so the custodians put together their own checklist. They made a list of all the items in a room that needed to be sanitized to make sure the next patient didn’t get a hospital-acquired infection. That’s the discretionary effort and increased productivity that happens when organizations connect with staff and help them find joy in work.

The secret to high performance and satisfaction — at work, at school, and at home — is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

That’s what Iris did.

Do you have similar stories about how anyone in your organization found joy in their work? Please share below in the comments.

Stephen Swensen, MD, is professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, the Medical Director of Leadership and Organization Development at the Mayo Clinic, and an IHI Senior Fellow.


You may also be interested in:

WIHI: Making the Work of QI Less Draining and More Sustaining

Video: How Team-Based Care Can Improve Joy in Work (02:07)

IHI Open School Case Study: Dealing with Burnout


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