Getting Technical columnist Sandy Walsh is a veterinary practice management consultant, speaker and adviser. She is an instructor for Patterson Veterinary Management University and continues to work in a small animal practice. She has over 35 years of experience in the veterinary field and brings her in-the-trenches experience directly to readers.Read Articles Written by Sandy Walsh
Burnout is an inevitable aspect of working in the veterinary profession. Characterized in many ways, it’s commonly described as “persistent physical, mental or emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress, usually as a result of excessive workplace and/or personal responsibilities.”
A function of where you work rather than what you do, stress-related burnout is more prominent now than ever before, I believe, as our typical workday has been turned upside down by COVID. Many of us are still trying to get our feet on solid, familiar ground and navigate the new normal. We no longer have predictable, organized chaos. Our days are filled with challenging, new and different ways of providing service to clients and sustaining business. Curbside care, virtual care, face coverings, physical distancing and difficult client interactions are part of the new normal.
The Veterinary Hospital Managers Association’s June 2020 “Insiders’ Insights” report highlighted a member survey. The question was “What pain points are you currently struggling with most?” Asked to identify their top three, respondents said:
- Staff mental fatigue (stress, irritability, etc.).
- Client irritability (rude or abusive to staff).
- Increased client visits.
Veterinary nurses are tired and stressed. Clients are a major contributor to this. The demand for services has far exceeded our ability to care for everyone and is a major contributor to the increased stress we are experiencing. Now is the time to consider doing things differently.
When we look at historical industry-specific stressors, difficult clients have always been at the top of the list. Curbside or concierge service has changed our relationship with pet owners. We no longer have the level of face-to-face contact everyone is accustomed to, which means developing trust and making a bonding connection is difficult.
Consider the curbside experience for a new client and her puppy. The visit should be exciting for the pet owner, but when all the client interaction is by phone as she sits in her car, a feeling of disconnect emerges. We are asking the new client to trust us with her puppy and go without in-person interaction with the veterinarian. It’s a tough concept.
We need to bridge the gap. Communication is the key.
You can take steps to improve the experience. When the client schedules an appointment and is informed about new processes, she is less likely to act out later in frustration. She and other clients should know what to expect during a visit.
Here’s what I suggest:
- When doctors can’t meet a client face to face, enhance the personal touch through a video chat or FaceTime.
- Share and explain hospital access policies when you schedule and confirm appointments.
- Streamline visits by obtaining in advance the client information, patient history and any prescription refill needs.
- Communicate with the client throughout the visit so that she has a good understanding of what’s going on with her pet.
- Assign one technician to communicate and work with the client from start to finish.
- Enhance your callback system. Connect with clients the day after the visit to address any concerns and answer questions.
Remember that the situation has changed dramatically for clients as well. They are adjusting to our new way of providing veterinary care and services. Good communication is essential in establishing and nurturing that bond. Less stress for the client means less stress for the team.
Who’s Working Today?
Your practice might have seen a dramatic increase in the number of staff members calling out sick because of stress and fatigue. Those who are parents of school-age children need time off to assist with home-schooling, or they have day care challenges. Many practices approach crisis mode when COVID-related absences and requests for scheduled time off pile up. Short staffing contributes to increased stress levels.
Scheduling strategies can maximize employee coverage. The set schedules we had before won’t work if employees cannot work those hours anymore. Flexibility is needed.
Here are strategies I recommend:
- Schedule the team appropriately. It’s easy to confuse inefficiency with short staffing. The goal is to have the right person doing the right thing at the right time.
- Schedule veterinary appointments appropriately. Don’t overbook.
- Consider changing procedure schedules based on staff availability. If your surgery technician can’t work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, limit the number of procedures performed those days.
- Meet with each employee to evaluate specific availability and flexibility. Consider shorter or longer shifts to meet the practice’s needs. Keep overtime work to a minimum.
- Recruit, hire and train talent to meet your staffing needs.
Stress is not necessarily all bad. We need a certain amount of it in our lives to enable us to cope with the chaos of our job and personal responsibilities. Sustained stress — periods of no control or relief — has long-lasting negative effects.
We need to acknowledge, welcome and utilize stress in our lives to survive and thrive during our busy daily routines. When we acknowledge the stressors in our lives, we are better able to cope with them.
Researchers at Stanford University’s Mind and Body Lab developed a free short course. Check out “Rethink Stress: See, Own and Use Your Stress” at stanford.io/2Q0pgqx.
Here’s what you can do to reduce workplace stress and take control of the workload:
- Communicate daily. Start the day on the right foot with morning team huddles. Discuss what is scheduled, assign responsibilities and develop action plans.
- Take breaks throughout the workday.
- Consider working fewer hours during the week, and minimize overtime.
- Consider taking a different, less stressful job at the hospital.
- Take time off. You need to recharge.
- Identify and address common workplace frustrations.
- Work with practice leaders to address a negative culture.
Workplace stress is only part of the challenge. Stress also occurs outside the practice. Remember to take care of your personal needs so that you can support the needs of others both at work and at home.
- Do something for yourself every day that makes you happy.
- Eat healthy and get enough rest.
- Exercise every day.
- Ask for help when needed.
The benefits of self-care and stress management are the same as those we see with a healthy work-life balance: happier and more productive work and home lives, higher levels of job satisfaction and engagement, and fewer medical issues. We just need to take a breath and take care of ourselves. We’re in this for the long run.