Columns , Leadership

The forgotten team member

Outnumbered and full of responsibility, practice managers aren’t immune to the personal struggles afflicting doctors and staff. Solutions are within reach.

The forgotten team member
Managers point to a range of issues for what causes feelings of stress, being overwhelmed and general dissatisfaction.

As veterinary practice managers, we frequently discuss supporting employee wellness and combating veterinarian compassion fatigue, but our own stress and disengagement are less commonly addressed. Let’s do it now.

Why are we ignored? In part, it’s a numbers game. The ratio of doctors and technicians to managers is high, so more emphasis naturally is put on the front-line team members. Also, we often fail to reach out. Many of us drown in stress and obligations until the combination leads to a constant state of being and we don’t recognize our dissatisfaction. And, of course, we are fixers. We’re managers because of our effectiveness in human resource leadership, organizational skills and problem-solving. We are called on to provide a platform and oversight for team morale and output, but a similar built-in support system for the management team is often missing. It can be an isolating position.

The good news? Because we are solution seekers and attuned to the human condition, we are fully equipped to go to work on ourselves at any time. Let’s choose to tackle our stress and re-engage in our careers for the betterment of our practices and personal lives.

Here are five steps to get started.

1. Identify the Problem

What causes feelings of stress, being overwhelmed or general dissatisfaction? Managers I know point to a range of issues:

  • Allowing daily fires to disrupt personal priorities.
  • Dealing with difficult clients.
  • Being socially isolated from teammates because of our positional authority.
  • Feeling like we care more about the practice than anyone else does, even
  • the owner.
  • Falling behind on excessive workloads.
  • Bearing the weight of employee troubles and drama.

Taking our work stress home, causing a work-life imbalance.

2. Get to Know Yourself

The American Psychological Association recommends committing to a week or two of journaling to track your stressors. What happened? When? Who was involved? How did you outwardly react? How did you inwardly feel? Look for patterns in these events and inventory your responses. Did you go for a walk? Grab a snack? Vent? Shut down? Spend the evening binge-watching Netflix?

Take time to reflect on why you’re a manager, your personal mission and your goals. Which tasks and projects energize you and which ones deplete you? Is your job description clear, appropriate and understood by people you work alongside?

Consider broadening your education, and understand how your personality plays a role in everyday interactions at work. For instance, I test as an organized person, but my desk and car would indicate otherwise. While keeping my physical spaces tidy is tedious, when I do it I feel far less burdened and free to be creative and productive. Another example: I test as a fact-based thinker, while most of the people I work with are emotion-based feelers. Knowing we come from opposite viewpoints helps me filter conversations to produce positive outcomes rather than feel frustrated and ineffective.

3. Accept What You Cannot Change

Any job comes with a certain level of drudgery and difficulty. Veterinary management is no exception. We can strive for greatness while simultaneously guarding against the disappointments of inevitable unpleasantries. From time to time, clients are going to get upset and employees are going to underperform and act ungrateful. Misunderstandings will occur, money will be wasted, equipment will break, legal issues will crop up. We cannot always prevent these things, but we can choose how we respond.

We can let ourselves slip into a mentality that the universe is against us and that we are fighting an uphill battle. Sure, workplace issues sometimes reflect management failures, but they often are just the normal course of business. I choose to think that my job is to show up, shine and take everything in stride. I strive to face each obstacle with a smile, find personal learning and teaching opportunities, and model calm confidence for those around me.

4. Gain Control Over Distractions and Depleters

Abundant and sometimes contradictory information is available to help us become less stressed and more productive. Best practices likely vary from person to person and are situational. Here are some of my web-crawl-generated ideas. I hope one or two will inspire you to further explore and experiment.

  • Engage in non-work activities such as family outings, friendships, church events, sports, reading, volunteering, art, education, gardening, cooking and travel. Life can be fun, so don’t miss it.
  • Gain perspective by learning more about our big, wide world. Veterinary management starts to feel quite small in comparison.
  • Leave work burdens at work by brain-dumping your next day’s to-do list before you leave. Shift your focus on your way home.
  • Empower others to lean less on management, and allow them to take tasks off your plate.
  • Try meditation by pausing to focus only on your breath at crucial times of the day, such as the moment you wake up, when you start and end the workday, and during transitions between tasks.
  • Practice mindfulness to sharpen your focus, engage in the task at hand, remove distractions and reduce brain fatigue. Common fatiguing distractions include text notifications, emails and interruptions.
  • Arrive at work knowing your top priorities, and focus on achieving those daily goals.
  • Choose healthy habits and responses to stress. These include a balanced diet, regular exercise, social interaction and sufficient sleep.
  • Set boundaries by committing to times when you are fully disengaged from work. Recognize when another person’s problems are not yours to fix.

5. Reinvigorate and Reengage

Ultimately, the goal is to not just crawl away from the edge of burnout but to truly engage in our daily work. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, summarizes these four main aspects of engagement:

  • Craft autonomy: Strive to tailor your job toward your strengths while finding opportunities to delegate or minimize your weaknesses. Look for meaningful connections throughout the day by networking with other managers or connecting with a teammate or client. Reframe your thinking about your job to one of curiosity rather than obligation.
  • Make regular, meaningful progress: Recognizing personal progress builds momentum. Pause to celebrate small wins by crossing them off your to-do list, giving yourself a quiet “attaboy” or sharing with a co-worker your accomplishment.
  • Feel positive emotions: Make time throughout the day for enjoyable activities like water-cooler talk or petting a puppy. Remember to smile and bring humor into your interactions.
  • Experience “flow”: As coined by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, flow is the state of total immersion in the task at hand to the point of losing track of time. Pick a project that inspires passion, set up a distraction-free environment and get pleasantly absorbed in your work.

Keep calm, carry on and may the flow be with you.

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.

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