Kellie G. Olah
SPHR, CVPM, SHRM-SCP
HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.Read Articles Written by Kellie G. Olah
On the day your practice hired Maria as a veterinary nurse, you were thrilled. Not only did Maria have plenty of experience, but she was compassionate and caring, too. A win-win. Nowadays, though, you notice that Maria is on edge much of the time, experiencing what seem to be panic attacks. Some days her anxiety is so high that she struggles to perform duties that once seemed second nature to her. As a practice manager or owner, what should you do?
I want to share a brief overview of the prevalence of such challenges and then focus on strategies to address them in your practice.
On-the-Job Mental Health
Mental health issues are all too common in the workplace today. Maria’s experiences might resemble situations you see. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 — completed before COVID stresses began — showed that nearly half of the people in the Generation Z and millennial demographics reported feeling stressed most or all of the time.
More specific to the veterinary industry, a 2015 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 31% of veterinarians experienced episodes of depression, with 11% thinking about suicide and 9% having serious psychological distress at the time the survey was taken.
Workplace productivity can decrease significantly when employees struggle with their mental health. The National Business Group on Health estimated that untreated mental illness indirectly costs U.S. employees as much as $100 billion annually.
A CDC study published in 2019, meanwhile, showed an increased risk of suicide among veterinarians, especially female practitioners.
The risk is real.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health issues, so let’s be clear about what each entails and the symptoms.
Anxiety goes beyond feeling worried in response to a situation. If a co-worker seems especially stressed because a loved one is undergoing surgery that day, for example, the stress goes away when the situation is resolved. That’s not the kind of free-floating anxiety I am discussing. Instead, the anxiety I want to focus on consists of feelings of worry that don’t go away, even when a specific stressor doesn’t exist.
A person experiencing anxiety frequently will appear tense, become easily overwhelmed, struggle with decision making, avoid workplace activities and so forth.
Depression, on the other hand, involves a low mood that persists for at least two weeks, with the person losing interest in activities that used to be engaging. A person who is depressed might appear listless and unable to concentrate. It’s not unusual for that person to experience significant fatigue, which might mean struggling to get to work on time. The person might cry or lash out.
No two people experience anxiety or depression the same way, and some have both conditions simultaneously.
What You Can Do
What’s crucial is to train your managers and supervisors about the signs of mental health issues and provide resources designed to support your employees. Many of these resources are free, such as “Managing Mental Health Matters,” a guide for workplace leaders that is available at bit.ly/3kzlp1x. Groups like the American Psychiatric Association Foundation provide plenty of quality online resources at no cost. Learn more at bit.ly/3gQQNX1.
Your practice should create an environment in which people feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their supervisors and where supervisors, in turn, listen carefully to what’s said. When such an environment is nurtured, mental health challenges typically can be managed more seamlessly.
One reason a culture of openness is so important is that associating a stigma with mental illness can prevent people from seeking help. Someone like Maria might be afraid to open up for fear of appearing less than capable and perhaps even losing her job because of the negative connotations associated with mental illness.
Employee manuals should contain specific policies for when a mental health issue arises, just as you would, for example, in a family leave situation. Then, consistently and compassionately follow them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to accommodate workers who have a mental illness that impacts a major activity in life, unless it creates an undue hardship on the business. The requirement holds true even if the issue, such as anxiety or depression, is episodic. Accommodations can include changed job duties and reduced work hours as an employee transitions to a regular schedule. Although an employer may discipline a worker who has a mental illness if the behavior presents a threat — up to and including termination — being scared of the mental illness is not enough to be considered a threat.
Employers shouldn’t try to diagnose a condition or directly ask about the person’s mental health. Instead, ask the employee about any help that is needed so that he or she can perform the job more effectively. Once an employee willingly discloses a mental health issue, avenues to more open communication appear.
As studies have shown, some veterinary professionals harbor suicidal thoughts when stress or a mental health issue becomes significant. If someone talks about suicide, take the comments seriously. You might be the first person to identify that the employee is in danger. If you think the person might act soon, call your local emergency number. If the threat seems less imminent, contacting a suicide hotline can be the answer. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255.)
People normally free of mental health issues might be under more stress during the pandemic. So, practice managers should be on heightened alert. Fortunately, plenty of mental health resources are available.
I recommend these:
- The World Health Organization’s #HealthyAtHome program (bit.ly/3kzMWzM)
- The CDC’s “Coping with Stress” page (bit.ly/3MkUsx6)
- Mental Health America’s “Mental Health and COVID-19 Information and Resources” (bit.ly/31GUTdZ)
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Mental Health and Coping During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic” page (bit.ly/2F5ABDd)
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ “COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide” (bit.ly/33OMA2h)