3 Science-Backed Ways to Energize Veterinary Teams
Updated: Apr 9
Working in veterinary medicine is challenging under the best of conditions.
This past year-plus, for many of us, it’s been darn near overwhelming.
So it’s no surprise a word we’ve been talking about for years now has come up more and more since March of 2020 - “burnout”.
Our profession has endured the long-standing presence of unacceptable levels of professional burnout.
A recently published study looking at the experience of human healthcare providers might offer potential antidotes for veterinary professionals and a path to the vitalizing fulfillment we all deserve.
In the study, 40 health care providers were randomly selected. Each participated in a rigorous, semi-structured interview asking about factors in their work that contribute to depletion (and potentially burnout) and engagement and motivation.
They were asked questions like:
Have you ever experienced burnout? (If yes) Tell me about that time.
Tell me about a time you felt engaged in your work?
What contributed to [your engagement]?
A detailed thematic analysis of the data was conducted to look for common variables that contribute to engagement and/or minimize burnout for these healthcare providers.
What Contributes to Positive Engagement for Healthcare Providers?
In the above study, three common themes emerged in the data.
1. An Organization Culture Focused on Person-Centered Care: Participants spoke about the energy they get from providing quality, impactful care for their patients.
Having a culture that supports this “patient-centered” approach seemed critical for their positive engagement. As one participant stated, the vitality comes from “seeing the fruits of our labor”.
To the contrary, participants who worked for organizations that seemed to value productivity over patients, the number of cases over the quality of each interaction, and/or profits over impact spoke of the depleting effects. In essence, if they felt their culture put the bottom line ahead of the purpose of the work, it contributed to their risk for burnout and depleted their engagement.
This finding did not surprise me as prior research indicates caregiving professionals (like us in vetmed!) tend to be far more motivated by impact and contribution than “numbers”.
2. High-Quality, Effective Management: The second common theme pertained to the skills of management. Participants who worked in teams and/or organizations where management excelled in their role tended to be more energized and at less risk of burnout.
Clear, consistent, and transparent communication was noted as an example of effective management. Of note, this seemed to include a variety of relational components such as psychological safety (managers who enabled safe, easy conversation especially around difficult or sensitive topics) and accessibility (managers who were present and engaged in the day-to-day experience of their teams).
Highly engaged participants also spoke of management willing and able to effectively address system inefficiencies and take tangible action to improve workflow. Finally, they suggested that managers who showed a commitment to growing their leadership skills – and made efforts to do so – resulted in a more engaged and motivated team.
More specifically, participants indicated managers with strong leadership skills tended to develop a partnership-style and high-trust relationship with their employees, supported employees’ autonomy to do their work the best way they see fit, accepted and provided meaningful feedback, and held themselves and their teams to high standards.
3. Opportunities for Professional Development and Self-Care: In reading through this section of the study results, I was reminded of a personal experience.
A couple of years ago I was called to speak to a large group of human doctors about compassion fatigue and burnout. In preparation, I spoke to one of the doctors with a keen interest in the concepts. He told me the following story (paraphrased, though in quotes):
“Our administration recognized the preponderance of burnout in our hospital. To help us out, they hired yoga instructors and massage therapists to come to the hospital on a regular basis. The idea was, we’d all have access to these self-care services right here, on site, during our work days.
There was just one problem. Administration did nothing to change our schedules. We still had the same massive workloads so none of us felt the ability – or support – to take time to attend yoga lessons or get a massage. Eventually the administration pulled the plug on the investment due to ‘lack of use’.”
Participants often spoke of feeling energized and motivated when they were provided opportunity, time, and support to pursue self-enhancing activities such as professional development, self-care activities, personal time, and even lunch. Working in an organization that respects and support the healthy boundaries necessary to enjoy these kinds of activities seemed to be a critical variable contributing to positive engagement.
What Can Veterinary Leaders Learn from This?
These lessons can – and absolutely should – apply to veterinary medicine and animal welfare work. Here are a few ways veterinary leaders can better enable positive engagement, energy, and thriving for themselves and their teams:
1. Focus on Impact: As veterinary leaders – managers, medical directors, hospital owners, etc. – we are often buried in numbers. In a sea of numerical data it can be easy to habituate talking about the numbers. Numbers, however, are at best a mere piece of the story of the impact of our work. Talking mostly (or only) in numbers also sends the message that results are what matter most.
Impact is most potently felt when we see our positive contribution to someone else. Leaders can help the team see and feel the impact of their contributions by looking for, sharing, and celebrating stories.
Every day in your hospital people are doing things that matter. To each other, to your clients, to your community. Look for those examples of meaningful contribution and point them out.
2. Connect with Your People: All effective management (and leadership) starts with relationships. If you do not know the people who work for you, how can you hope to best meet the needs that drive their motivation? If you do not know their experiences, perspectives, and insights how can you hope to effectively improve the workflow they participate in?
Connecting with people starts with showing them that they matter. This requires both noticing and appreciating them and what they do.
In one fascinating study, researchers took a group of social workers and randomly divided them into two groups. One group received a handwritten note from their manager. The note contained two sentences of appreciative, positive feedback; the first sentence was selected from a menu of items like “your work has had a positive impact on [our clients]”, and the second sentence was written by the manager themselves, in their own words.
This simple intervention had incredible effects. One month later, those who received the letter reported feeling significantly more valued, appreciated, and supported by their leadership than the group who received no letter.
What a wonderful way to both notice and appreciate someone!
When was the last time you sat down and wrote a genuine letter of appreciation to the people on your team?
3. Help People Secure Healthy Boundaries: I’d add to that, “so that they can pursue the re-invigorating activities they need to thrive long term.”
At Google, they have a wonderful little intervention that managers are encouraged to use. It’s called the “One Simple Thing” worksheet.
On a regular basis (weekly, monthly, etc.) managers sit down with each member of their team and complete the One Simple Thing sheet together. Employees are encouraged to write out one thing they’d like to see happen to support their work/life balance, professional development, self-care, or some other energizing action.
As a partnered activity this gives the manager the opportunity to understand what is important to this employee’s engagement and energy – and support it! For example, one employee mentioned wanting to “hit the gym” three times a week. Their manager made a habit of checking in with them every Wednesday morning to see where they were at for that week. On weeks they had only made it once (or not at all) to the gym, their manager would figure out a way to get them a little longer lunch that day to help them get to their workout in.
Veterinary leaders - you can make it a priority to understand what your employees need to maintain and grow their energy and find ways to support them in achieving these things.
By the way, in doing so, you may not only boost them...you may be boosting yourself! Some research suggests leaders who practice these approaches enjoy improved relationships with the people they lead. As a result, their sense of self-efficacy (I can do this leadership thing!) and autonomous motivation (I want to do this leadership thing) increase resulting in an elevated sense of subjective vitality at work.
That's the stuff of workplace wellbeing.
Yes, working in veterinary medicine is difficult, challenging, and often exhausting. Leaders have an incredible opportunity to make it a bit easier and more fulfilling for the people they lead, and themselves.
A little intention and effort can go a long way.