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 hear how younger veterinarians don’t want to work long hours, but I have the opposite problem: One of my new veterinarians won’t leave! I’ve politely mentioned that I’m worried she’ll burn out — she graduated two years ago — but she says she’s fine. Her production is about average and she’s paid a salary, so she’s not making additional money. Do I write her up, cut her hours (and maybe pay) or ignore the issue?
A: The “First Five Flameout” is real. That’s what I call the new-grad, five-year workaholic sprint that often accelerates mental and physical challenges later in life. Practice leaders need to be sensitive to the phenomenon and do their best to preserve employee health and well-being over the long haul. Being a veterinarian is a marathon, and those with more experience need to help pace the new crew.
First, make sure her caseload is appropriate given her capabilities. You said her production is “about average,” but the average of what? A new grad is often slower and more methodical, and everything just takes longer compared to those of us with more years to our credit. You might need to adjust her appointments or responsibilities if she’s struggling to complete her normal work during regular hours.
Second, offer gentle nudges throughout the day to keep her on track. Many new grads are easily distracted and eager to help, often derailing their schedule.
I wouldn’t reduce her hours or issue a formal reprimand unless things deteriorate. She’s trying to make sense of veterinary medicine, and perhaps she needs a more explicit explanation of how long hours might extract a heavy toll on her future.
Finally, it’s important to note that when she stays late, subtle pressure is put on others to stick around, too. I’ve seen many excellent veterinary technicians and managers “race to be last” in a misguided effort to be viewed by leadership as “most dedicated” or “hardest working.” They end up in a dash to the drain that is unsustainable and destructive.
Because she’s relatively inexperienced and eager, you have a chance to change her life for the better. I applaud you for your concern and wish that more practice owners and managers would douse the First Five Flameout.
Q: We hired an associate veterinarian to help manage our growing team. The practice owner was upfront with her about the requirement to supervise the treatment team, and she claimed she was comfortable overseeing support staff. The problem is that every time we try to discuss an employee’s failings, she tells us she’s “uncomfortable talking” about her co-workers, much less confronting a team member who needs to improve. I’ve tried to talk to her about this many times, but I’m not making any progress. As a result, the practice owner is getting frustrated, and I’m struggling to continue growing our practice and manage the entire team. How can I help this veterinarian become a better manager?
A: Managing others is like creating a human tapestry woven from aspiration, inspiration, education and evaluation. The weaver must have a design clearly in mind, and the threads must be constantly adjusted and aligned. The best artisans adapt to broken yarns, short spools and painful pinpricks while still producing beautiful art.
As you ponder that management metaphor, consider that not everyone is meant to sit at the loom. Explain to the associate veterinarian why the leadership team must respectfully discuss employee shortcomings and provide actionable performance feedback. I suggest the two of you role-play an employee review or intervention so that she learns communication pointers.
Managers and leaders must have honest and courteous conversations about their teams to improve productivity, maintain morale and elevate each other. Ultimately, you can teach her only so much about management and leadership; the associate has to do the rest. I advise having another direct conversation about the issue, giving her a reasonable timeline and pathway for progression, and seeing what happens. Accept that the responsibility might not be her strength at this time, so prepare an alternative. After all, you’ve proven that you’re a wonderful weaver.
Q: Our extremely busy practice added a veterinarian who came from an internship at a well-respected university. She seems to know her medicine, but her work attitude needs improvement. Lately, when asked to restrain a patient, get a fecal sample or pick poop off the floor, she rolls her eyes and tells the staff things like, “This is a huge waste of my training!” She flatly refused to pitch in and help a few times, citing “doctor duties.” Of course, this rankles the employees responsible for those tasks, and I feel it’s demeaning to the team. How can I convince this veterinarian that vets sometimes have to do non-vet things?
A: As you correctly surmised, such an attitude displayed by any team member can be destructive to workplace harmony and undermine unity. It’s time for a forthright discussion about working together. Start by critically evaluating the context of the conflicts. There’s a chance the new hire could be correct and might truly have had “doctor duties” that needed her attention. Her priority should always be on veterinarian-specific tasks, so some misunderstanding or miscommunication might be occurring. Give her the benefit of the doubt until you can accurately assess what’s going on.
Assuming she’s protesting or refusing to help when she’s genuinely needed, you need to let her know how she’s coming across to the team. Most folks don’t want to be viewed negatively by their peers, and she might not be aware of how her reactions affect others. Hopefully, a jolt of self-awareness will tilt her toward good behavior and teamwork. Sometimes, knowing how you’re perceived is all it takes to recalibrate one’s thinking.
Assure her that the tasks you mentioned aren’t beneath a veterinarian or anyone else in the clinic. This is about patient care, and sometimes everyone has to pick up poop, regardless of the job title or credentials.
Set a timeline for correction, and check in regularly. Such an approach will play out either with a positive change or a resignation or termination. Let’s hope she fulfills her doctor duties and does the right thing.