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Columns, Community, Leadership

Tattoos, Stress and Staff Conflict

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward answers your questions.

Tattoos, Stress and Staff Conflict
More veterinary professionals are rejecting staff conflict as unavoidable and demanding better leadership and working conditions.

Q: At least once a week, one of my friends on social media messages me to seek pet advice. Many of the conversations take considerable time. If I respond, “Go to your veterinarian,” my friend says I’m not compassionate. Am I a fake friend or is my friend asking too much?

A: Real friends don’t pester their veterinary friends for advice. OK, some do, but if they’re really your friends, you don’t mind answering. The friction begins on the blurry boundaries separating friends in real life, virtual friends, followers and a person you sort of know. Anyone other than friends in real life probably provokes the feeling that you’re being taken advantage of. And you probably are.

I get these requests, too, and I’ll tell you how I deal with them: I ignore 98%, give limited responses to 1% and answer the rest. You must give yourself permission to say “no” to the 98% of unsolicited queries. Direct messages that start with “PLEASE HELP MY BABY!” and end with “I don’t have any money and didn’t know who to ask” are immediate red flags. I’ve found that if I engage, even to say I’m sorry, I’m opened to an escalation of pleas that usually ends in insults. I’ve learned to fast-forward to the insults and ignore them.

Things get fuzzier and more frustrating when the person asking is a neighbor or the parent of your child’s friend. Veterinarians are often fixers, and we forget that someone might not be asking us to fix a problem but simply is wondering what to do. We might think they want us to see their pet or prescribe something when “Looks like Buster needs to see your veterinarian” is all they require. If they demand more, don’t feel obligated to exceed your comfort (or legal) zone. Over the years, I had to avoid a handful of parents and neighbors because they crossed an online line.

That covers 99% of the situations. What about that remaining 1%? Sometimes, we inadvertently invite inquiries. For example, when I post about a specific medical condition or treatment, people might have questions. In that case, I try to answer most of the comments as succinctly as possible.

Q: Staff conflict in my clinic is getting worse. While the conflict seems most obvious between the front and back staffs, I’m noticing it more between everyone. Many are talking of quitting. As an associate veterinarian, what can I do to help?

A: “Front versus back” and “everyone against management” is an old problem in veterinary practice. What’s new is that more veterinary professionals are rejecting staff conflict as unavoidable and demanding better leadership and working conditions. While each situation is unique and requires specific interventions to restore team harmony, any employee can and should take some steps.

First, speak up. No matter how frightening the situation, you owe it to yourself and your team to discuss the problems with your manager or practice owner. Prepare a written reference of the principal issues you’ve observed, citing examples, and offer to help solve them. Capturing your thoughts on paper will refine your feelings, keep you on track and aid in overcoming nervousness. One of three outcomes will result:

Your superior dismisses your concerns, at which time I advise you to consider another job. Leadership 101 is to take any complaint seriously and consider it respectfully. Failure to take action signals a hierarchy uninterested in change or improving the workplace.

The manager or owner agrees but no change results after a couple of weeks. Sweeping a complaint under the carpet is a proven tactic and usually wins by attrition and fatigue. Start scanning the classifieds.

Your manager is genuinely unaware of the problem and wants to fix it. Practice leaders sometimes get so focused on their responsibilities that they lose sight of the team around them. In my experience, this group makes up the majority of clinic leaders. Be sure to encourage the collaboration of several team leaders to address everyone’s issues and establish better working relationships. Success is measured by how well we work together.

Q: This past year has been mentally challenging for me and many of my coworkers. When I told my boomer boss how I was feeling, she told me, “Suck it up.” Now, I’m questioning whether I’m emotionally strong enough to stay in the profession. Is it just me or are others struggling to find the strength to power through?

A: It’s not just you. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of U.S. adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, compared with just 11% in January to July 2019. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on daily routines, upended work, and caused significant physical and mental illness. While it’s true that short-term stress might be handled by “bucking up,” no one is that strong when the trauma is ongoing like the pandemic. The “Suck it up” strategy doesn’t cut it in COVID times and might create more serious mental health challenges.

I’ve referred colleagues to Mental Health America since the early COVID days (mhanational.org). The nonprofit group offers excellent screening tests to help determine whether you have anxiety or depression and whether a health care professional could help. MHA also provides tips and advice on coping with the strain many of us are feeling.

The fact that you are here proves you’re strong enough to be a veterinary professional. Feeling worried, overwhelmed and inadequate is normal and can be more common during a global pandemic. The key is to recognize this as an expected response to stress, take active steps to control anxiety and depression, adhere to a healthy lifestyle of nutritious meals, daily aerobic activity and ample restorative rest, and seek professional help. Online therapists have been a godsend to millions of people this past year. You can power through by leaning into a network of nurturing, supportive and experienced family, friends, colleagues and health professionals.

Q: My forearm has a new tattoo. My manager said the tattoo might upset older clients and that I needed to keep it covered at work. It’s a phoenix to remind me of how I got through a tough time in my life. Is she being a fuddy-duddy or am I a misunderstood millennial?

A: I would have agreed with your manager 20 years ago. These days, this Gen Xer is on your side with a caveat. In my first book, published in 1999, I shared our codes of appearance, which required “visible tattoos be covered during client interactions.” The reasoning was that society back then hadn’t fully accepted tattoos as normal. Today, 40% of people ages 18 to 34 and 36% of those 35 to 54 years old have at least one tat. Only 16% of those over age 55 are inked. With so many flowers, hearts and animals adorning exposed epidermis, we’ve grown accustomed to body art.

As long as the drawing isn’t objectionable, I don’t have a problem with it. For example, I met a veterinary professional whose forearm was covered by an intricate rendering of a skull with a grenade in its mouth and wearing a wreath of bullets. I marveled at the artistry but wondered whether the image might distress some clients. Could it trigger the memory of a lost loved one or evoke a past trauma? I don’t know, but if I employed him, I’d discuss the tattoo and come to a mutually agreed solution.

As for your tattoo, it cannot be considered even remotely offensive or upsetting in any way. Have an open discussion with your manager. Chances are the two of you can work things out and arrive at a better understanding of both opinions. Rise, phoenix!

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward (drernieward.com) 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 for the future as he participates in endurance athletics and meditation. If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email [email protected].