Most equine practices are small, employing just a few team members. Practice owners frequently find that managing their support staff is a challenge that increases as the practice grows. Because these are very small businesses, most operate without the benefit of a practice manager. Even in larger practices with a manager in charge of human resources, overseeing employees is demanding. Leading a small team can be infinitely more satisfying and successful by utilizing best practices, fostering clear communication, and creating a collaborative team culture.
A recent study investigating the predictors of employee engagement and work satisfaction in equine veterinary professionals revealed that levels of work engagement and satisfaction in the veterinary profession could be gauged using four factors.
1) The extent to which employees’ personal core values align with the mission of the practice;
2) The relationships between staff members and owners;
3) The working conditions, level of collegiality, and compensation; and
4) The team culture and opportunities to pursue personal and professional growth.
Support staff experience stress in their work, even though they also receive satisfaction from helping clients and their animals. However, high workloads, long work hours, emotionally charged interactions with clients, exposure to animal suffering, and participation in euthanasia can cause burnout.
A toxic practice culture has also been shown to be highly implicated in decreasing quality of work life.2
Create A Positive Community
Creating a supportive community with great communication can go a long way toward ameliorating these facts of veterinary life. Paying generous wages shows an appreciation for the efforts of workers without which the practice would suffer.
People thrive when they have clear expectations because most desire to do a great job at work. Having systems in place can make a practice run much more smoothly, with more autonomy for staff and less attention needed from the owner. Systems memorialize how things are done and the desired outcome. Many studies have shown the positive effect of having choice in the workplace. By focusing on outcomes rather than details, employees become more engaged, and job satisfaction rises.
Creating job descriptions for each position in the practice is a key step. These documents spell out the expectations and daily functions of the employee. Every description can include “Help other staff members with their responsibilities whenever time allows or the workload requires.” The listing of tasks should be fairly comprehensive, but excessive detail is not required. Having an Employee Manual can ensure that policies and decisions are equitable across the workforce. By writing things down, a practice owner has a tool to know how to answer questions that only come up occasionally.
Team members are inspired by being a part of something bigger than themselves that creates a difference in the world.
A practice vision statement serves as a clear beacon by articulating the long-term goal that a practice aspires to achieve. When the practice leader communicates the vision clearly and repetitively, all staff members understand what they are trying to achieve through their work, and they can develop new ideas and ways to improve the journey.
The practice’s values are the core of its identity—they are the principles, beliefs and philosophies that are held sacred and feel undeniable. The practice owners must continually demonstrate and communicate those values because they provide a guideline for the expected behaviors of the entire veterinary team. Therefore, it is essential that practice owners hire to support their values, because when values are not aligned, no one is happy.
Values serve three very important functions in a practice. They:
1) provide ethical guidelines and boundaries for the practice mission and vision;
2) simplify decision-making, because if something is not in alignment with the values of the practice, decisions become easy to make; and
3) resolve conflict because values become the standard of acceptable behavior within the practice.
According to Gallup’s recent State of the American Workplace report, only 13% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their organization’s leadership communicates effectively. Only three in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that at work their opinions seem to count.
What this might signal is that team members want to be heard.3 A common complaint among employees in equine veterinary practices is that communication is lacking clarity or is not occurring frequently enough. Many practice teams struggle to operate with effectiveness when veterinarians operate like silos and information critical to smooth functioning and excellent customer service is not shared with the team.
Frequent, clear, transparent, inclusive communication between everyone on the team is one of the key ingredients in having a collaborative culture. There are many technologies available such as Slack or Zoom that can foster more connection. Weekly staff meetings create a team atmosphere, and those are the most effective when they are short and have a planned agenda. Sharing a quick story about a recent case that illustrates the values of the practice can help keep the purpose of the work personal to the team. Weaving in the mission, vision and values of the practice at every opportunity helps to keep them fundamental to the team’s identity.
Leaders, whether they are practice owners or associate veterinarians, sometimes stop seeking the input of their support staff as they become more successful and experienced. High achievers in particular frequently fail to wonder what others’ perspectives are and what problems and solutions they see. Doctors are problem solvers and want to offer solutions, so sometimes they forget the value of asking questions and seeking others’ perspectives. When leaders show interest in what others are seeing and thinking by asking questions, it helps to create a psychologically safe culture.
Psychological safety is a condition in which a person feels included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.
Globally, studies have shown that only 47% of all employees feel that their workplaces are psychologically safe.5 When psychological safety is present, teams are stronger because mistakes are seen as ways to learn how to do things better in the future. People also speak up with ideas because risk is diminished.
Because the pandemic ushered in an unprecedented amount of mental health challenges, it is more important than ever to care about your employees as people. When people seek to understand the perspectives of others, it enhances connections to one another. The practice owner can model this behavior by regularly seeking input from the team. The leader should also check in with each employee individually on a regular basis, asking a question such as: What can I do to best support you? What do you look forward to when you come to work each day? If you could change something about your job, what would that be?
Recognizing small successes and embedding appreciation and empathy into a practice culture can increase employees’ sense of belonging and help them feel their contributions have meaning. If the practice has an internal communication channel (e.g. Slack), giving recognition on a regular basis to employees who make efforts to embody the practice’s shared values can boost engagement. When goals have been set and successfully met—such as increasing the number of patients that have annual dental floats—the celebration could be a group breakfast or afternoon ice cream social. Remembering birthdays with a group card and cake or flowers can also build team spirit. Being remembered as a person rather than just a cog in the wheel of a business supports mental health and well-being.
While managing a team takes time away from clinical work, it is essential to make this investment. Creating an atmosphere of teamwork does not occur in a vacuum. The practice leaders must actively engage with their employees, put systems in place to streamline their work, provide autonomy in meeting expectations, take the time to communicate regularly and thoroughly, and walk their talk. Leaders model the way.
Shared experiences populate the stories that are the practice’s oral history and communicate its values to the world. When everyone in the organization sees the practice team as a group of people who each contribute valuable, unique talents to the whole, and each member of the team feels appreciated and like they matter, the practice can rely on its healthy culture to attract and sustain its people into the future.
1. 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 Accessed 3/11/2023
2. Rohlf, V.I.; Scotney, R.; et al. Predictors of Professional Quality of Life in Veterinary Professionals. J Vet Med Educ. 2022 Jun;49(3):372-381. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34102096/ Accessed 3/13/2023
3. Dvorak, Nate. Pendell, Ryan. Want to Change Your Culture? Listen To Your People. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/247361/change-culture-listen-best-people.aspx Accessed 3/10/2023
4. Cordivano, Stacey. Why Employees Quit: Psychological Safety is Key for Reducing Turnover and Improving the Bottom Line. AAEP Proceedings. Vol. 68. 2022. pp 113-116