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The Subtle Art of Positively Shifting Culture

By Bethany Robles, BSN, RN Jan 26, 2024

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Burnout is a hot-button topic and an undeniable problem facing our healthcare workers across the country, as even a quick literature search will confirm.

Burnout is a hot-button topic and an undeniable problem facing our healthcare workers across the country, as even a quick literature search will confirm. Managing staff burnout can be challenging. Often, staff may feel that attempts to intervene are simply another set of tasks to complete. These feelings can persist even if said tasks are, at their core, helpful and worthy. But what if subtly shifting a culture came from within?

Introducing: Mo Hospital Cat

I’ve been a pediatric nurse for 15 years with the first half of that time in a pediatric ICU and the latter half in the hospital’s pediatric float pool. About a year ago I stumbled on a very unconventional way to uplift my co-workers - enter Mo Hospital Cat.

Mo Hospital Cat, Author: Bethany Robles

When Mo Hospital Cat first came about, there were no lofty goals. Mo, in cartoon form, simply existed as a type of comic relief for myself. I would draw quick cartoon scribbles and then hide them under a keyboard or mouse pad on whichever unit I was working that shift. Some of them would be nurse humor, some would be a note of positivity, and most would be at least a little sarcastic. I would get a little adrenaline-serotonin rush as I walked away knowing that someone would find Mo.

I maintained my anonymity for months, hiding more and more cartoons across all pediatric units in the hospital, primarily for nursing staff. The first time I knew Mo was starting to improve staff morale was when I saw one of my early cartoons taped up in one of the nurses’ stations. It was Mo sleeping on a dumpster that happened to be engulfed in flames, with the tagline “It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

The Cat Was Out of the Bag

Over time, more and more Mo doodles popped up across units at the nurses’ stations. I would happily chuckle every time I saw one displayed.

Once the cat was out of the bag (see what I did there) and co-workers discovered that I was Mo’s creator, they would know to look for the hidden cartoons after I visited their unit. Mo now decorates break rooms, nurses’ stations, a few doctors’ work stations and beyond. Because Mo visits multiple units throughout the hospital, a social media account was created for the drawings, so staff from everywhere could enjoy Mo comics. Mo has created a community and a sense of camaraderie throughout our facility.

Mo mail left for the hospital canines, our therapy dogs, in their mailboxes.

One of the postcards Mo sent to staff while on vacation

Mo’s Impact

When you decide to find the humor in an otherwise fairly humorless situation, you take the power back from that situation.

Finding a meaningful way to use humor to slowly shift the vibe on the units is now Mo’s goal. Providing small acts of meaningful recognition to co-workers is a helpful tool in the effort to uplift unit morale. In Mo’s case, humor is proving to be an effective complement when used correctly. Viewing frustrating events in a comedic way gives people a small sense of relief and control over those events. For example, we have all gotten that 5 a.m. phone call from the lab that our patient’s specimen has hemolyzed or clotted …

… or that one time the family member accidentally pushes the Staff Emergency button while trying to turn off a call bell.

In turn, we have all felt the frustration and can collectively bond over those experiences. By turning these situations into small moments of comic relief, we are regaining some control over our mental response. The next time we get a similar call from the lab, or a family accidentally hits that code bell, we may still experience the frustration but simultaneously remember the joke and fill in some of that emotional space with a laugh.

These cartoons genuinely bring me joy and gently started a morale shift where I work. This artistic endeavor never feels like a “task,” and I believe that’s the beauty of it. This creation has benefited me as much as it has benefited my fellow co-workers.

Why does Mo work?

Why are fun little stories about an undeniably hilarious cartoon cat so impactful?

Why Mo works:

  • Relatable
  • Consistent
  • Free
  • Didn’t cause extra work for the audience
  • Enjoyed by the creator

I believe Mo has an impact because each hidden drawing is an in-the-moment relatable blip. They are funny enough to get a chuckle while being relevant to our everyday work experiences.

A fellow staff member captured the essence of Mo’s impact. She sent me a personal message to let me know that the last few years have been so difficult. At our hospital, a lot of staff members have really felt beaten down. Mo Hospital Cat has not fixed that issue, but Mo has helped bring some of us together and reminded us about the joy and wonder of our work. Other staff have echoed this sentiment after finding out I am Mo’s creator. The positive and heartwarming reactions have fueled the continuation of hidden Mo comics for over a year.

Make Your Own Mo-ments

Finding ways to bring moments of joy is a small but meaningful part of a larger puzzle of positive culture shift. But without making small changes, we run the risk of making no changes. That stagnancy can allow our annoyances to become bigger problems.

Create your own moments of levity and share them. I mean this quite literally. You can create your own type of “Mo” drawings for comedic relief and hide them for colleagues to find! If this idea isn’t up your alley, use a meaningful recognition platform if your hospital has one in place. Find something you are passionate about, and share it with your co-workers in small ways. If you enjoy baking, bring something delectable to share with them. If you enjoy music, create a shareable playlist for the commute to and from work. Although these might be small acts, as long as the thought is genuine, they can be meaningful and impactful. It really can be a small act from one person that provides uplifting moments.

Finally, I believe this needs to be a grassroots type of Mo-vement. (I know, I’m very punny). Humor needs to originate from within your staff. Keep it meaningful, relatable and consistent. It takes just one person to start something like this. One person to keep it going. Even if it reaches a small audience, it is impactful. We can best care for our patients if we first care for each other.

And like Mo says …

What small act of kindness has positively influenced your work? What is a concrete way you can carry this torch forward?