When I quit my first job in veterinary medicine, I thought I would never enter the field again. The environment I walked away from had the same characteristic taglines that we hear too often: “toxic culture,” “underappreciation of staff,” “overworked,” “no potential for growth,” “dumpster fire.” I was told, “That’s the way all veterinary hospitals are. Get used to it,” which left very little hope for any change on the horizon.
Scared off by my first experience in veterinary medicine, I spent some time away before eventually finding my place as a practice manager at a new hospital. But during that time away, my personal passion project focused on researching organizational culture. I was determined to find a way to end these cycles of chaos and dysfunction that seemed to plague veterinary teams. I had several books on my reading list that I pored over for insight and information, including:
- If Disney Ran Your Hospital, by Fred Lee
- Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service, by The Disney Institute, Theodore Kinni
- Patients Come Second, by Paul Speigelman and Britt Berrett (This was my favorite of them all!)
What was the theme of every book I read during my quest to discover the elusive, “holy-grail” solution for developing a healthy, thriving workplace? If you want your business to succeed while providing the best experience for your clients, you must put your team’s wellbeing first.
Easier said than done, right?
What is wellbeing?
Often interchanged with “wellness,” which involves objective things that can be measured, “wellbeing” is subjective and linked to our personal choices. What many people don’t realize is that wellbeing involves many different facets defined by the AVMA as:
- Occupational — Being engaged in work that gives you personal satisfaction, and aligns with your values, goals, and lifestyle
- Intellectual — Learning new things; participating in activities that foster critical thinking and expand your worldviews
- Spiritual — Having a sense of inner harmony and balance
- Social — Surrounding yourself with a network of support built on mutual trust, respect, and compassion
- Emotional — Being able to identify and manage your full range of emotions, and seeking help when necessary
- Physical — Taking care of your body (e.g., getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, etc.)
- Financial — Being aware of your personal finances and adhering to a budget that enables you to meet your financial goals
- Creative — Participating in diverse cultural and artistic experiences
- Environmental — Taking an active role in preserving, protecting, and improving the environment
How to promote your team’s wellbeing
It’s important to recognize these different aspects of wellbeing, because each of them has an influence over our day-to-day lives. The reality of what someone is facing might not be entirely visible on the surface. Preventing burnout and promoting overall wellbeing requires taking action on an individual, team, and organization level, and these five tips can help you get started:
1. Create a team culture that prioritizes wellbeing
Define your team’s purpose and core values
Increasing wellbeing might be the goal, but culture is the way it is achieved. Take a moment to evaluate your current practice culture to see if it is reinforcing team wellbeing by assessing your veterinary team’s purpose and core values, or defining them if you haven’t already. This is much more than the “mission statement” you might have on the website for clients, and it is necessary in order to intentionally create the environment you desire.
Your team’s purpose, simply put, is the reason you all agree to come into work — something that does not waiver depending on what side of the bed you wake up each day. For example, at the practice I managed, ours was: “To educate clients and improve the lives of pets with exceptional care.” Our purpose set the foundation for everything we did as a team, and our established core values were how we accomplished this.Core values are the set of behaviors that each person chooses to abide by as a member of the team, and they provide clear expectations and accountability for everyone. Culture is formed when teams normalize what they want, so state that clearly in your core values. They can be inspiring, funny, serious, whatever best reflects your team and your goals.
At my former practice, we discussed these definitions right from the beginning with interviewees, quizzed new hires to test their memorization, and even had them painted on the wall in the treatment area. My favorite core value we created was, “We choose positivity, and we don’t panic.” If you want to make sure wellbeing is at the forefront of your organization, you could add something as simple as “We agree to support each other’s wellbeing”, so it sets the standard within the very center of your culture.
Put your words into action
Putting it down on paper is one thing, but living it out is another. To truly achieve this goal, everyone needs to put a stop to the stigma around old narratives, and instead, positively reinforce team members when they make time to care for themselves. This includes taking a lunch break, using their PTO, and going to a doctor’s appointment. These are all things that should be encouraged and supported. There’s no reason anyone should feel guilty for putting their needs first.
2. Be proactive with stress-management and prevention
It’s not possible to completely eliminate stress. But the sooner that we accept it as a constant foe, we can start to learn, adapt, and get ahead of the crisis in order to minimize the immediate negative impact and encourage resiliency.
Tackle the causes of burnout
To battle burnout, you must start by identifying your team’s current stress triggers. If you don’t know, ask during one-on-one check-ins, or send monthly surveys. Make sure you take your own triggers into account well. Then ask yourself (and your team), “What do we currently have in place to reduce stress, and is it working?”. Once you understand what stresses your team the most and what is not working, you can start making changes to address the issues.
Learn about wellbeing as a team
Provide tools and continuing education on topics that can help with wellbeing.
- Not sure where to begin? Encourage your team to take the AVMA Wellbeing assessment.
- It might be worth investing in the AVMA’s Workplace Wellbeing Certificate Program ($75) for leadership team members.
- Look into emotional intelligence and communication training. I love all the in-person and digital CE from Veterinary Growth Partners. The “Commando Conversations” series changed my life!
- Invite a local nutritionist to speak at your next staff meeting.
- Learn about budgeting as a team from a local bank or accounting firm.
Don’t be scared to talk about mental health
Have resources on hand at all times that you can provide team members in need of services (e.g., EAP, local crisis center, compassion fatigue counseling, etc.), and encourage veterinary staff to prioritize their mental health. I highly recommend everyone on the leadership team get Mental Health First Aid Certified. I completed my own training virtually in lockdown for free through mentalhealthfirstaid.org. It provides basic fundamentals for recognizing, responding to, and helping someone in a mental health crisis. In my experience as a practice manager, this training is invaluable.A conversation floating around for a while has been the question, “Can mental health days work in veterinary medicine?” My answer: They have to. At the end of the day, every person on the team is far too valuable to lose. Implementing this successfully would involve developing protocols and boundaries so that the needs of the hospital and the individuals are met, but it is possible.By empowering your team to do what they need to do to care for themselves, you will find that work and productivity improve because that trust is appreciated and motivating. I also love the idea of getting rid of “sick days” entirely and calling these “wellness days” to really reiterate the purpose!
Set boundaries with clients and appointments
If you really want to start putting your team’s (and your own) wellbeing first, this one is essential. Our friends in human medicine have managed to set this standard, and it’s time we start doing the same.
- Do not schedule more than the staff you have can mentally — or physically — handle.
- Don’t be afraid to politely say no to those same-day, work-in ear infections. Or any appointment that tips the scale for providing the best care possible because everyone is overwhelmed.
- And most of all, NEVER tolerate any type of bullying or verbal abuse.
This is where the book Patients Come Second that I mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s a new perspective and a far cry from the “customer is always right” mindset that has previously been the standard in customer service. But it’s necessary if we are to take care of the needs of our teams, the business, and pet owners alike.
3. Offer benefits that promote wellbeing
Wellbeing is multifaceted, so get creative with the benefits you offer staff. Here are a few you can consider:
- Gym membership stipend
- Compassion fatigue counseling
- Massage therapist onsite quarterly
- Healthy snacks in the break room
- Days allotted for community service
- Team wellness challenges
Want to offer these benefits but don’t have room in the budget? Get your reps to help sponsor!
4. Involve the team in dialogue and decision-making
Part of promoting wellbeing is ensuring everyone on the team feels seen and valued. When people feel heard, they have a stronger sense of ownership, increasing morale and productivity. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including:
- Frequent check-ins
Each staff member should have clear, open lines of communication and regular one-on-one discussions with their leadership team. These should not be “reviews.” Rather, they should feel safe and conversational.
- Opportunities for group collaboration and problem solving
Be transparent with your staff and discuss things together, when at all possible. Are you considering switching your software or adjusting your hours? Spend time talking through the options at the next team meeting so they feel involved in the change, rather than blindsided.
- Create a Culture Committee
What better way to engage your team in the practice culture than to empower them to lead it? Establishing a chief culture officer or culture committee within your team provides a unique opportunity for staff members to collaborate and work alongside the leadership team.
5. Set an example and break the burnout cycle
There must be clear and consistent messaging — in words and actions — from hospital leaders that wellbeing is a priority. Here are a few tips to help leadership practice what they preach:
Have a self-care plan in place
This preventive measure will make it even easier for you to know what to do after your own tough days and stay on track with prioritizing your own mental health. Some things to consider when making a self-care plan:
- What are you doing now to cope with stress? Is it working?
- Which coping mechanisms are in line with your wellbeing goals? Are you using negative mechanisms that should be eliminated?
- What do you do now for self care? Remember you can start by taking this wellbeing assessment to determine your current baseline.
- Who do you have to talk to about your wellbeing? Make sure you have the same support you offer to others.
Identify wellness barriers
You can’t predict or solve everything. But by anticipating your challenges, you will be more prepared to stick to your personal wellbeing goals. For example, if you want to start “unplugging” during your time off so you can step away from the practice, consider creating a “Frequently Asked Questions” document before you go on vacation with a name of someone else who can answer questions so you can jet off without that feeling of panic about the inventory orders.
Prepare for a self-care emergency
When you spend so much time caring for and helping others, a crisis can sneak up on you without you even knowing. It’s important to ensure that while you are there for others, someone else is also looking out for you and knows how to help when you need it. Make an emergency self-care plan, and share it with a practice leader, your spouse, or a close friend.
Accountability matters more than perfection
There will be occasional dips back into the “old ways.” Suddenly the techs aren’t making it to lunch most days, and the doctors are starting to say “yes” to working in more appointments than they can handle. But the important thing is that you hold each other accountable to recognize when these challenges arise and realign the priorities to match your wellbeing goals. Everyone, including leadership, should have an accountability “buddy” they can go to for support and feedback.
Contrary to what I believed when I left that very first job, creating a healthy, positive culture in veterinary medicine is possible. It takes a village to promote wellbeing, but it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Oh, and one more thing: It never hurts to simplify your team’s tasks and help them get home for dinner on time. Vetsource’s platform can help. Schedule a demo to find out how.