Radiologists Will Notice Inequities in Workload

November 25, 2011

Radiologists, by and large, are rather smart folks. They’ll definitely notice persistent inequities in their workload. If such imbalances aren’t eventually matched by differences in compensation, you can expect one of two things: Your workhorses will find greener pastures, or they’ll realize that the reward for their extra effort is merely the opportunity to continue to pull more than their share in the future - and slow down to emulate the slackers around them.

Cast your mind back a century or two, and imagine you’re driving a horse-drawn carriage. You want to go faster. Your means of spurring on the two horses is a whip. As you contemplate using it, you notice that the horse on the left is doing more to pull the carriage than the one on the right. So, which gets the lash? The slowpoke, to bring it up to par? Or the workhorse, on the grounds that it’s already showing you it can do better?

My first radiological experience from the horses’ perspective was more than a decade ago. At the end of one of my overnight shifts, one of the techs approached with a stack of unread studies, just as the senior guy who was relieving me came walking up. According to the division of labor we used back then, the unread stuff should have already been read by a peer of mine, who was covering the overnight shift with me.

One way or another, she had failed to collect and read those studies -and now our superior was about to inherit them. My teammate was conveniently not present at the moment of discovery, and I got ready to be read the riot act in her absence.

As a pleasant surprise, the senior guy just sighed and spoke forgivingly of the absentee, saying, “Well, she was probably tired.” At the moment, I was all too happy to be spared a dressing-down, and free to go home.

That happiness didn’t last, however. I kept on thinking about how it wouldn’t even have entered in my mind to slack off like that. Perhaps I was foolish for having a work ethic, but I’d sooner work at 110 percent and drive myself nuts than risk letting some of my job fall on someone else’ shoulders. Shouldn’t there be some kind of consequence for this?

I had to believe that there was. In the fullness of time, those who worked harder and/or better would surely be promoted and/or rewarded, or at least kept on staff, while slackers got passed over if not fired outright.

A couple of jobs later, I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe I’ve just had the misfortune of working in some places that don’t place much value on such things. As long as an employee isn’t catastrophically bad, s/he gets to stay. If somebody goes above and beyond to get noticed, a kind word and a pat on the back often seem to be deemed sufficient. Maybe someone will remember to reward the good egg someday, when times are better and there are buckets of extra cash to throw around. Don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, times remain tough and belts keep getting tightened. What to do?

The work never seems to get done fast enough - or well enough. Hiring more help is often out of the question; the current members of the team must step up their game. Should one start by increasing the burden on the less-productive names in the roster, make them earn their keep a little more? That’s often regarded as a dry well - they seem to be at their limit already.

How about the workhorses, then? They always come through - steer the extra work their way! Maybe they’ll like the challenge. Make sure someone reminds them that there’s no “I” in “team.”

Radiologists, by and large, are rather smart folks. They make their living by seeing little things that other people might not. They’ll definitely notice persistent inequities in their workload. If such imbalances aren’t eventually matched by differences in compensation (or other perks - you’d be surprised what non-financial things might matter to your colleagues), you can expect one of two things: Your workhorses will find greener pastures, or they’ll realize that the reward for their extra effort is merely the opportunity to continue to pull more than their share in the future - and slow down to emulate the slackers around them.

(No horses - or radiologists - were harmed in the writing of this column.)