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One step at a time

The veterinary profession must and can do better with well-being. An incremental approach would get us turned around.

One step at a time
Try not to underestimate the power of incrementalism — one step at a time, bit by bit.

I am a big believer in innovation. Breakthrough ideas are inspiring, exciting and energizing. I look for opportunities to challenge the status quo; there’s always a better way to do things.

That said, I try not to underestimate the power of incrementalism — one step at a time, bit by bit. While it’s not as headline worthy as a breakthrough innovation, incrementalism is often equally effective in changing the status quo. I’m reminded of this Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

I see three primary maladies facing our profession:

  • The high cost of veterinary education.
  • The high cost of veterinary care.
  • Wellness issues that plague too many of our colleagues.

Where Do You Stand?

Let’s talk about well-being. Among the more disturbing symptoms of a work-life imbalance for veterinarians and veterinary nurses is career dissatisfaction. This symptom frequently manifests in nurses leaving our profession — I’m told seven years is their average career span — and in veterinarians advising their children and other people not to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

The situation is heartbreaking and, if untreated, threatens our profession. I’m determined to change this. It’s not OK for us to lose talented nurses. It’s not OK for doctors who were once thrilled to be accepted into this great profession to no longer advise others to enter it. Not on my watch, not in my practice.

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the power of incrementalism as it pertains to retirement savings. Many Americans are under the impression that saving enough for retirement is impossible. They love get-rich-quick stories. (As an aside, did you know that more was spent on lottery tickets in the United States last year than was spent on all aspects of the pet industry?)

The podcast went on to advocate for the power of incrementalism, pointing out that a relatively small amount of money saved every year for many years delivers a significant stash at retirement. While this strategy is no secret to anyone who has read a personal finance book, it’s just one of many case studies centered on the power of incrementalism.

18 Tactics

When we look to improve veterinary team wellness, an incremental approach applies. We may not all be in a position to tackle deeply rooted issues, but we can incrementally tackle the symptoms using a number of tactics. I encourage you to act on the following ways that ring true to you.

1. Implement flex schedules: When it comes to scheduling, one size does not fit all. Ask your team members what works best for them. Get creative. Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, works for almost no one.

2. Give robust paid time off: We work hard. One vacation week a year is not enough time to recharge, nor is two. If you receive generous paid time off, take it! I’m amazed to hear of colleagues who don’t use their vacation days.

3. Join forces: The solutions to most of our issues exist among our brilliant peers. Join your state and local VMA, professional associations, alumni groups, clubs, committees, LinkedIn groups and more. By becoming a member of a community, you become a part of the solution.

4. Honor two-doctor days: One-doctor days are stressful. Working solo is not fun. Eliminate it.

5. Empower hospital leaders: Too many large practices are defaulting to the old top-down leadership approach. Stop! Veterinary professionals are brilliant. With a little help they know how to lead teams. Hospital autonomy is critical to building a culture of empowerment and work satisfaction. Teach others to lead, then get out of the way. Magic will happen.

6. Make it OK to ask for help: The American Veterinary Medical Association’s well-being and peer assistance programs are widely available. So are the American Animal Hospital Association’s team well-being and employee assistance programs. Also take advantage of team meetings, suggestion boxes and open office doors.

7. Don’t forget the basics: Eat well, sleep, exercise, and hug your pets and family.

8. Keep a daily gratitude journal: There’s so much to be thankful for.

9. Develop stress-relieving tools: Breathing exercises, physical activities, alone time, volunteering, reading and games help.

10. Practice teamwork: Health care delivery is a team sport. Lean on and support your team.

11. Delegate: Teams work best when delegation is used.

12. Stay curious: Embrace lifelong learning for you and your team. Personal and professional learning are a must.

13. Track retention: I believe no key performance indicator is more critical than employee retention. If people are consistently quitting, something is wrong. Take the time to conduct exit interviews and correct any issues. Don’t underestimate the effect of stay interviews in which employees discuss what they like and don’t like about their job. Stay interviews can dramatically reduce turnover.

14. Insist on health coverage: I can’t imagine not having health insurance for my family. If not offered by your employer, find one that does.

15. Prioritize financial well-being: At some point in your career, retirement becomes a consideration. Start saving.

16. Create a fun work culture: How many veterinary practices have you visited? Could you tell within two minutes of entering the lobby whether the workplace was a fun one? Work can be fun.

17. Remember the power of the pause: My friend John is a big proponent of the power of the pause. A busy practice might not be fun at times — a grave prognosis, a euthanasia, a less-than-desired outcome. Take a minute and pause. For some, a quick prayer; for others, a moment to process; for others, a chance to catch their breath and gather themselves.

18. Celebrate: Most of us are good at spotting and calling out poor performance. How many of us are just as good at calling out good performance? Look for reasons to celebrate.

Slowly but Surely

One of my WellHaven hospitals is participating with AAHA in a Healthy Workplace Initiative beta test. The idea is that by better promoting a healthy workplace we can better promote well-being. Very cool.

As I was finishing a draft of this article, I read in my most recent JAVMA “100 Healthy Tips to Support a Culture of Wellbeing.” Way to go, AVMA!

Enjoy the journey. We are blessed to be in a profession in which we make such an enormous difference in the lives of those we serve. Society universally admires our profession, one whose importance is just beginning to be recognized for its impact on human health.

The principle of incrementalism says I might not be able to change our entire profession, but I can take a few steps, maybe more. No longer is it OK for supremely gifted veterinary nurses to leave our profession. No longer is it OK for brilliant clinicians to advise their daughters against following in their footsteps. In my practice, this is no longer acceptable. Not on my watch. Not in my practice.

We will do all we can, one step at a time, to reverse declines in well-being. We can make a difference.

Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors. Protection Status