Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Ernie Ward
Q: I called in sick because I needed a mental health day. Unfortunately, a co-worker caught me having lunch with a friend. She said nothing, but I’m worried she’ll tell my boss. What should I do?
A: A lot is going on here, but I want to assure you that “calling in sick” means you cannot perform your work duties, regardless of the cause. I suspect you’re uncomfortable because we often think of “sick” as being homebound. As long as you genuinely thought you couldn’t work at the level your position requires, you were right to stay home. And you’ve got to eat, so there’s no reason to apologize. But there’s more to this question than a restaurant rendezvous.
What concerns me most is that you felt “caught” and might face serious repercussions. Even worse, you’re apparently uncomfortable telling management that you need a mental health day. Unfortunately, not all workplaces are supportive or actively try to prevent burnout. In a perfect situation, you’d coordinate with your manager and co-workers to cover your absence. But, regardless of how much support you receive from your boss, you should never feel bad for taking care of yourself.
You can handle this situation in several ways. The first is to do nothing. Maybe your co-worker didn’t give you a second thought and moved on, or perhaps your colleague has done the same thing. But, of course, silence doesn’t help with your boss, so you still need to address your mental health needs.
My preferred option is to talk with your co-worker and boss. Start by telling your colleague about your struggles. Explain that when you’re feeling down and running half-speed in the clinic, you’re causing more harm than help. Describe the steps you’re taking to get stronger, and don’t be afraid to ask both of them for assistance. Remind them that others might be suffering, too, if you feel this way.
Be prepared to be met with understanding and approval, doubt and dismissal, or unpredictable reactions. The responses will reveal how much they value your well-being. Anything less than full support and comfort should light up the exit sign. No job is worth your health. After all, there’s never been a better time to pursue a more nurturing workplace.
Q: I’m struggling with how to give my staff raises. I can’t afford to lose anyone. Everyone wants more pay, but they don’t want to earn it. Why can’t they be happy to have a decent job?
A: I’m sensing a bit of anger and frustration, but how to give pay raises is one of the most common management questions. Before I give you my advice, take a deep breath and relax. Things aren’t as bad as you imagine. Plenty of folks are willing to work hard. The problem might be that your definition of a “decent job” might differ from the rest of the world. But for now, let’s get back to the subject of wage increases.
In today’s tight labor market, you’ll be unable to hire staff unless you’re in the top 10% of salary expectations. So, I’ve always started employees at or slightly higher than comparable pay benchmarks. From then on, I offer merit-based raises, which is easy to write but harder to implement. The secret is to develop a clear process and adhere to it.
My strategy was to conduct a performance evaluation every six months for the first three years of full-time employment, then annually. By providing regular feedback, we established that the assessment measured progress and status and wasn’t simply a calendar invite for a raise. At each eval, we presented achievements, strengths, added responsibilities and opportunities for improvement. We used the latter to earn raises. For example, a one-year associate DVM might need to improve the percentage of blood health screenings of senior pets. We map out a plan for education, communication training and role-playing, and we agree on a period for tracking results. Then, in three or four months, we schedule a follow-up meeting. If the results are positive, we might offer a raise as a reward. If not, the associate and we work together to achieve the desired outcome.
By unlinking “evaluation” and “raise,” we emphasize that improvement leads to higher pay. The evaluation becomes the mechanism to support and propel personal growth. And that’s the secret to keeping your team happy and productive.
Q: Every year, I promise I’ll start exercising and losing weight, and every year, I don’t. How do you motivate yourself to work out and eat healthily?
A: The answer is to seek discipline, not motivation. Motivation might get you to buy new running shoes, but discipline wears out the soles. I’m not necessarily “motivated” to work out each day, but I do it because I need to. Healthy habits are the same. But first, you’ve got to establish the habit to get to healthy.
Begin by determining your “why.” Do you want to lose weight? Improve your health? Have more energy? Hopefully, it’s all of the above. Having a purpose guiding your actions is crucial. Purpose can be motivation but generally is more substantial than “looking good at the beach.” For me, it started with a family history of cardiovascular disease. Nearly 40 years later, I remind myself that my daily actions help me avoid such an outcome.
In addition to physical health, daily exercise and a nutritious diet are the foundation for mental and emotional well-being. Self-care becomes a priority when you frame 30 minutes of exercise and skipping a sugary soda as steps in a lifelong journey. Treat your daily fitness routine as non-negotiable because it is.
Find activities that are enjoyable, accessible and achievable. For example, try swimming, cycling or dancing if you hate running on a treadmill. As I’ve gotten older, my interests shift as my physical abilities and needs change. Half-marathons and four- to five-hour ocean paddles have replaced Ironman triathlons, and weightlifting has replaced track sessions. A word of caution about enjoyment: Don’t be misled into thinking you’ll always love the activities. You’ll want to quit plenty of days. That’s when discipline kicks in.
Next, find ways to make exercise and diet convenient and accessible. Join a gym, invest in home exercise equipment, or take advantage of your surroundings. Precooking nutritious meals on your days off work can help you avoid workday fast-food runs.
Finally, set achievable goals to focus on three- to four-month periods. Over the past 40 years, I’ve constantly reset minor goals every quarter and bigger goals annually. For example, I might create a four-month plan for a half-marathon and an annual goal of a personal record deadlift, time or distance. I’m constantly working on near and far objectives.
The great news is that developing health discipline transfers to your entire life. I’m better because of decades of training and applying those tenets to my personal and professional life.
I hope my suggestions help make you prioritize your health this year.