DVM, CAPP, CHPSA
Dr. Philip Richmond is the founder and CEO of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants and the medical director of a small animal hospital in New Port Richey, Florida. He is passionate about positive culture change and well-being in veterinary workplaces. He is a member of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine’s well-being curriculum committee and is an instructor for the program.Read Articles Written by Philip Richmond
Dr. Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author, workplace well-being teacher and playful change activator. With over a decade of senior leadership experience in large organizations worldwide, she’s passionate about translating cutting-edge research from positive psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies for health, happiness, and business success.
Read Articles Written by Michelle McQuaid
Veterinary professionals shouldn’t leave work in a worse psychological state than they arrived in. Their jobs shouldn’t make them sick. If that statement gives you pause, how about this: We should create workplaces where we leave in a better psychological state than we arrived in. That can be our future, but wellness apps won’t get us there. We must work on the individual, team and organizational levels at all veterinary hospitals.
Well-being, engagement and work-life balance are terms used often in veterinary medicine. Most well-being experts agree that those aspects of practice need to be bolstered and improved to ensure the profession’s sustainability. We must assess and mitigate the risks to psychological well-being in the workplace just like we do when we protect our bodies from ionizing radiation by wearing lead gowns and shields. In addition, we must intentionally promote flourishing in our hospitals.
Where should veterinary organizations start when trying to improve their teams’ well-being? From the top down? Bottom up? Everyone at one time? Do you wish you had a simple way to help your practice figure things out and take action?
Given that employees with higher levels of well-being are much more likely to be engaged, productive and healthier, doesn’t it make sense for workplaces to provide robust well-being programs? Unfortunately, when wellness classes or yoga feel like one more job requirement, a team’s well-being can be undermined. Research suggests that some employers seem to miss the point with well-being programs. What’s needed to improve well-being is a happier workplace.
So, how can we better introduce that well-being approach to veterinary practices and organizations?
Dr. Aaron Jarden, a psychology professor at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand and an organizational well-being researcher and consultant, described the most effective way he’s found to embed well-being programs into workplaces. It’s the use of a “me,” “we” and “us” framework easily understood by anyone in a veterinary organization, from interns to CEOs.
“It gives a practical language to get others on board, to understand the concepts and envisage how the strategies will be implemented,” Dr. Jarden said.
In a veterinary setting, the framework’s “me” level focuses on individual team members. It refers to the things each of us has a responsibility to do to improve our well-being. As individuals, we must be willing to grow. While the organization and its leadership have a large share of the responsibility for facilitating well-being overall, the individual plays a critical role.
The PERMAH model of well-being in positive psychology gives us a place to start. The acronym stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning/purpose, accomplishment/achievement, and health. For example, individual team members might discover their strengths, which fall under the engagement pillar, and find ways to use them in their job to “level up.” Giving team members access to resilience training is another tool to help elevate well-being.
The “we” level is aimed at the relationships between people in the workplace. The focus should be on cultivating relationships in the teams we work with regularly. For instance, in a veterinary hospital, this might be the surgical or client service teams. It also might be an employee and manager, an employee and team, or an employee and others who interact regularly.
Creating psychological safety, fostering high-quality connections and cultivating a growth-mindset environment can be areas of focus. Including different ideas, viewpoints and experiences and a diversity of thought, race and culture are necessary for well-being and psychological safety.
We can ask questions as a team:
- How openly and courageously do we communicate with each other?
- How does our team respond to failure?
- Do our team members give us the benefit of the doubt if we make a mistake?
- Do the organization’s leaders possess integrity and empathy?
- Do our leaders empower staff and demonstrate vulnerability and availability?
- Are they skilled in conflict management?
The answers to those questions can guide us in moving in a positive direction at the “we” level of veterinary workplace well-being.
The “us” level refers to the culture of well-being in the workplace and the organization’s responsibilities. It might consist of regularly assessing well-being to discover what is going well and where gaps in well-being and engagement exist. Validated tools, such as the PERMAH Wellbeing Survey [bit.ly/3MmU93d] and the Professional Quality of Life Scale [bit.ly/3Evgt8k], assist leaders by giving actionable data on well-being and burnout.
Creating an overarching vision is foundational, and organizations can draw on a positive organization method called appreciative inquiry, which uses positively framed questions through a discovery, visioning and action process. It can guide veterinary organizations to where they want to be. For example, we can begin by asking this powerful question, “What does a great day at our practice look like?”
Additionally, as an organization, workflow needs to be streamlined. Team members need to be included in its efficient design. Roles in the hospital should maximize team members’ skills and abilities. Scheduling and staffing should anticipate intermittent decreased DVM-to-staff ratios to reduce any overload.
In addition, regular recognition and appreciation of team members are needed. Diversity of thought and team, inclusivity and equity are critical to overall well-being. Training and protocols need to be in place for crisis management.
Assess the Situation
There’s no best way to implement a well-being program. Understanding which level your organization is at — “me,” “we” or “us” — is helpful. Some initial steps might involve increasing awareness, creating a wellness committee, or facilitating physical activity options or mindfulness training. Consulting with a veterinary workplace well-being professional can help decrease feelings of being overwhelmed. The end goal can be envisioned as well-being matters are discussed as a matter of strategic planning.
One important aspect of a successful program is obtaining senior management’s buy-in. Does management demonstrate its belief in veterinary team well-being and prioritize it? If not, team members and management will see the results in their day-to-day work experience.
So, is it best to start with me, we or us? Here are the three places to begin when introducing a well-being program into the veterinary workplace:
1. Build awareness: Ask yourself, “What does a good day at work look like?” Get curious and intentional about answering the question. What do client interactions feel like? How is the team interacting? What tasks am I doing that feel good? How can we do more of those things?
We can also ask, “How does our team feel about discussing well-being, how would we rate our organization’s level of awareness around well-being and mental health, and why?”
2. Take a top-down approach: Most senior leaders and managers have been taught a range of traditional skills that they draw on to obtain results. Introducing new systems requires getting team members to believe that well-being initiatives will help them achieve at least the same, if not better, results in areas such as engagement and productivity. By introducing “us”-level microinterventions, any manager can find the time to implement actions and experience the benefits.
For example, one organization that Dr. Jardin works with has the senior leadership team regularly reporting to the CEO about employees doing exceptionally well. That action ensures that leaders continuously look for the good in their people. Then, every
Friday at lunchtime, the CEO catches up with one of those employees and chats about what they enjoy about their work and why they value being part of the organization.
3. Take a bottom-up approach: People can practice improving their well-being using a range of microinterventions at the “me” level. Keep in mind that not all interventions suit everyone, so find the activity that best fits each team member.
One “me” microintervention is a simple three-breath exercise that can help you pause, relax and get into a positive state of mind. On the first deep breath, focus on becoming aware of and relaxing your body. On the second breath, focus on what you’re grateful for in the moment, not in the past or future. And on the third breath, consciously cultivate an intentional state that will serve you well in the task at hand, such as tapping into your curiosity, open-mindedness or critical thinking.
Be intentional and take small, deliberate first steps. Veterinary medicine needs practices with sustainability and well-being at their core.