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There is a good reason why GP receptionists are so grumpy

By Dr Jenna Ward - Last updated at 12:06 AM on 3rd January 2012

There is a stereotype of GP receptionists as dragons behind a desk — unsmiling individuals with a curt manner and an apparent determination to be anything but helpful.  But, in fact, their detached manner is not intended to intimidate or belittle patients; it’s actually a form of protection, to help them avoid emotional burn-out.

I discovered this after my colleague Dr Robert McMurray from Durham University and I were embedded with surgery receptionists over a three-year period. We observed 30 receptionists at work in three surgeries.

Receptionists can see up to 70 patients a day and their apparent lack of feeling provides a shield against emotional exhaustion

As specialists in analysing people’s emotional responses to different situations, we were intrigued to observe the receptionists’ unique way of handling themselves.

We came to realise this was an emotionally demanding job — receptionists can see up to 70 patients a day and their apparent lack of feeling provides a shield against emotional exhaustion.

The following was a common scenario: a queue of six people wait to speak to the receptionist on the other side of the glass window.

The first, an elderly woman tearfully registering the death of her husband.

Next, a smiling mum, here for her bouncing baby son’s check-up.

Meanwhile, the phone is constantly ringing, and the receptionist knows that she needs to answer the phone to a patient, who is likely to be unwell and quite probably annoyed about having to wait so long.

In the space of just seconds, the receptionist is presented with sorrow, happiness and anger.

It is impossible and, indeed, would be unhelpful for the receptionist to empathise or mirror all of these emotions — he or she must remain in control of their own feelings and those of their patients.

In the space of just seconds, the receptionist can be presented with sorrow, happiness and anger

A technique they use to do this is to remain neutral in the face of sometimes extreme emotions. Another challenge they face is being caught in between patients and doctors.

When a patient called asking for an emergency appointment that day for a child’s ear infection, I watched as the receptionist relayed this to the doctor.

However, the doctor told her it could wait until the next day — the receptionist then had the difficult task of telling this to the patient. The result was an angry altercation.

A more frightening incident involved a patient shouting at the receptionist for their methodone prescription. Once the prescription had been given, the patient went into the car park, took all the pills at once, washed down with a bottle of vodka, and then hurled stones at the surgery windows.

On another occasion, a disturbed patient rang the surgery saying he was covered in germs and was trying to scald them off his skin with boiling water.

While one receptionist tried to calm him down, another traced his notes and a third was contacting a doctor.

Despite all this, there is little appreciation of the emotional strain placed on GPs’ receptionists — they receive little training in handling people or in diffusing high-pressure situations.

Yet they are the stitching that holds a surgery together, emotionally and administratively (for instance, they are responsible for writing hospital referrals and updating patient records).

Any mistake could result in serious health implications for the patient.

Meanwhile, a good receptionist will go the extra mile for their patient — we witnessed those who, whenever they were unable to arrange an appointment as soon as the patient wished, would phone them back the instant a slot became available.

There is a misconception that receptionists do nothing more than answer the phone and type names into a computer.

In fact, as our research shows, the job requires a high degree of emotional awareness and maturity.

And so the next time you  are presented with a sour face at your surgery reception desk, just remember that they do really care.

Dr Ward is a senior lecturer in organisational studies at York University.

Interview by  Kate Wighton

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