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How to support your doctors

Managers should take the lead in finding ways to pay veterinarians more and get them additional free time. Their well-being is at stake.

How to support your doctors
It is critical for administrators to identify the manageable factors contributing to the dissatisfaction of veterinary professionals and combat the stressors of life.
Practice managers and veterinarians share the goal of producing healthy patients, happy clients and team members, and a thriving business. However, their starkly different vantage points sometimes leave managers and doctors struggling to understand one another. The recently published Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study quantified and gave insight into why veterinarians experience lower levels of well-being than the general population. The report provided takeaway points on what practices and individuals can do to defend against stressors. Here is what managers can do.

Pay Well

We know young graduates likely completed veterinary school saddled with debt after having picked a career offering notoriously low comparable wages. So, choose to pay your veterinarians and entire support team as much as possible. A healthy veterinary practice can profitably support spending 45 to 50% of total revenue on HR expenses, with roughly half that budget reserved for DVMs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for veterinarians is $50.59 ($105,227 annually assuming 2,080 hours worked per year). The 75th percentile wage is $58.74, or $122,179 a year. If your practice’s pay is under budget or below average, commit to finding ways to make it right. Even 75th percentile wages are undervaluing the skills and knowledge our veterinarians possess and are likely insufficient to pay off their significant student debt in a reasonable amount of time. Let us work together to raise the bar. In the meantime, consider offering access to financial services that would help veterinary team members flourish financially wherever they fall on the pay scale.

Respect Private Time

Striving to please clients and maximize appointments can lead to condensed lunch breaks, extended appointment hours and the expectation that doctors be accessible from home. Knowing that serious psychological distress increases with the number of hours worked per week, especially for those who work through the evening, we should prioritize creating an appointment schedule designed to encourage traditional working hours. Of the 3,539 participants in the Wellbeing Study, 45% indicated that they worked more hours than desired, and 39% reported that they worked over 45 hours a week. Serious psychological distress was most prominent among the one-third of veterinarians who specified they always or often work in the evenings. Try this:
  • Decide whether taking after-hours emergency calls is truly critical for your patient base or whether referring clients to the closest emergency hospital is a sufficient standard of care.
  • Set boundaries so that employees don’t interrupt teammates’ personal time with non-urgent matters.
  • Do not confuse a good work ethic with the unhealthy habit of working through lunch or staying well past the end of the day to tend to patients, write records and make callbacks.
  • Collaborate to improve efficiency, flow and delegation with the goal of all team members being home with their family shortly after closing.

Praise Healthy Living

Those who carve out time for socialization, exercise, vacations and relationships have higher levels of well-being. Add these to the list of healthy personal choices: mindfulness, balanced nutrition, regular full sleep, volunteering, hobbies, reading and limited social media use. When you notice an employee practicing self-care, praise it, accommodate it and encourage more of it. You should have plenty of opportunities to accommodate a co-worker’s positive lifestyle choices. Allow sufficient time and space for someone to eat a healthy meal, rest and recharge during midday breaks. When time off is requested to attend children’s activities, a fitness or art class, or be with friends, do your best to make it happen. In 2017, 52% of Americans had unused vacation time, totaling 212 million days. Set the expectation for your veterinarians to take time off. Everyone benefits from a rested doctor or teammate. Sure, scheduling can be a challenge, but practice managers earn their pay in finding creative, sustainable solutions to everyday problems. Ensure that those who might be suffering from low well-being or a mental health crisis are encouraged to use therapeutic options available through the workplace or from the broader veterinary community.

Accept Personality Differences

As a manager, I often have difficulty relating to the mindset of a veterinarian. I become frustrated when I try to reconcile the contradiction of veterinarians wanting to work less hours, see fewer patients and give discounts to financially strapped clients but at the same earn more money so that they feel adequately compensated and valued. However, when I take the time to set aside budgets and instead listen to what doctors are trying to say, I begin to understand the mind and heart of a veterinarian. Veterinarians care deeply about their patients and clients, they take words and outcomes personally, and they have trouble shutting off their worry over tough cases. The Wellbeing Study found that veterinarians have a tendency to be introverted neurotics, meaning they are less confident in themselves, are more responsive to stressors and require time alone to recharge. Those who rise to positions of leadership are typically extroverted and unlikely to show traits of neuroticism. Moreover, effective leaders tend to get along well with others, while veterinarians are less likely to be agreeable than the general population, according to the study. The personalities of managers are sometimes opposite of those we manage, and while it’s tempting to think our way is “right,” our job is not to force veterinary professionals to be different than what they are. Instead, managers are called to recognize the value and benefits of a different perspective and to work to meet common goals. The differences in the personalities of doctors and managers highlight the manager’s role in counterbalancing and protecting a team of veterinarians conducting the business of animal health. Given the sobering facts that veterinarians are more likely to have lower levels of well-being and are significantly less likely to recommend their profession to others, it is critical for administrators to identify the manageable factors contributing to the dissatisfaction of veterinary professionals and combat the stressors of life. Together we can elevate the culture and structure of our hospitals to promote the healthy well-being of our crucial, valuable team members. Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.