Recent research has shown that employees’ engagement and satisfaction with their workplaces in the equine veterinary profession can be gauged using four factors: 1) alignment of employees’ personal core values with the mission and culture of the practice; 2) relationships between staff members and owners; 3) working conditions, level of collegiality and compensation; and 4) team culture and opportunities to pursue personal and professional growth. [i] Belonging to a work community strengthens an individual’s sense of purpose and reduces feelings of being alone. This is important, because currently, loneliness has been called an epidemic in the U.S. by the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. In the 2023 report about this public health problem, loneliness is compared to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and is tied to multiple adverse health outcomes. According to the report, “The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%.”[ii]
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, after a person has food, water, clothes, shelter and safety, the next step on the pyramid is the need for belonging, connection, relationships and love. According to this theory, for motivation to arise to proceed to the next level of needs, each prior stage must first be satisfied. Accomplishment, esteem, creativity and self-fulfillment follow the more basic needs. The hierarchy has been used to explain how effort and motivation are correlated in the context of human behavior. [iii]
In a healthy culture where people feel they belong, everyone shares the same values. Leaders understand, articulate and live the practice values with authenticity. They create a safe and inclusive environment where everyone’s contribution matters. By establishing psychological safety across the organization and listening to everyone on the team, engagement increases. By creating conditions where everyone feels included, safe to learn, safe to contribute and safe to challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way, team members thrive. Leaders set clear goals and expectations for every role in the practice, acknowledge imperfection and learn from mistakes. They create workplace policies that make their staff feel valued and appreciated and model self-compassion, kindness, respect, honesty and mutual trust.
Small gestures matter, like always greeting your colleagues, advocating for your team’s well-being, celebrating successes, noticing generosity of time and spirit, showing appreciation and reaching out to someone who’s going through a tough time. Give regular stay interviews and act on what you learn. When considering changes, seek input from staff. Create a workplace where everyone feels like they are heard and their contribution matters by listening with curiosity, taking an interest in others and creating an inclusive communication chain, so everyone has needed information.
The AAEP Commission for Sustainability Culture Subcommittee has prepared a number of resources for practices to use in creating inclusive cultures where people feel like they matter. You can find these toolkits at https://aaep.org/aaep-equine-veterinary-sustainability-initiative/practice-culture.
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[i] Elte Y, Acton K, et al. Engage and enjoy–investigating predictors of employee engagement and work satisfaction in equine veterinary professionals. Front. Vet. Sci. 10:1036388. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2023.1036388/full