What is a culture of wellness and how does it impact my practice?

Stress can be defined as the body’s natural response to fear and is experienced mentally, physically and emotionally.  Stress is also often a feeling that arises based on a particular event.  When someone or something scares or pressures us, our body can convince us that we are ‘under attack’.  When our brain raises the alarm, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and signaling the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Pupils dilate and digestion slows. This alarm-stress response (also known as ‘fight or flight’) is of great use to us in critical situations such as slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident.  It’s also useful in less dangerous situations that also require critical thinking such as delivering a speech or sitting an exam.

Unfortunately, stress doesn’t always happen in response to things that are immediate or that are over quickly.  The stress response may be activated by anxiety about workloads or lack of support, fearfulness of colleagues, financial worries, health concerns and other personal circumstances.

Stress in the veterinary profession has been examined for many years and is widely acknowledged as an ongoing and predominant challenge facing the industry. Veterinary professionals experience job stress in various domains, which compounds to contribute to burnout. Burnout should not be confused with the vicarious trauma veterinary professionals also experience in supporting clients through difficult situations such as the euthanasia of a beloved pet and family member. Put together, all of this can paint a gloomy future for the industry. It is therefore critical that we each examine how we can shift the needle in the right direction. One avenue for combating burnout and vicarious trauma is for veterinary business owners and leaders to invest in developing a culture of wellness in their clinics.

What is a culture of wellness? Simply put, a culture of wellness means fostering a workplace that encourages and promotes the well-being of team members. It means implementing ways for employees to be healthier physically, mentally and socially, and supports employees to create healthy habits in their personal and professional lives. On the other hand, when leaders fail to manage burnout and the effects of vicarious trauma, the result can be tangible business interruption. We see an increase in employee sick leave, a decrease in team morale and effectiveness and, when burnout becomes chronic, a significant increase in staff turnover.

It makes sense then, that investing in developing a culture of wellness can promote happier employees who feel more valued and can then perform at a higher level. Happier employees are equipped to continue to contribute to a positive team culture and are able to more effectively ‘bounce back’ or respond with resilience when placed in challenging situations.

So, how can veterinary leaders take steps to develop a culture of wellness?

Normalise Workplace Stress. When we normalise workplace stress, we are acknowledging the presence of the stressor and the impact it is having. Rather than dramatizing the stress, we come together as a team and focus on problem solving, growth and moving forward as a team.

Encourage Healthy Habits. While this top tip is evident, it is also one of the first to go out the window when the going gets tough. Encourage healthy workplace habits such as ensuring team members take regular breaks, eat nourishing foods and drink water, and create time during those breaks for mindfulness activities such as short, guided meditation.

Encourage and Normalise Self-Care Practices. Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately to look after our mental, emotional and physical health. Although simple in theory, it is often overlooked. Self-care is not something we have to force ourselves to do or drains our energy or time in completing the activity. Instead, self-care is a means of refuelling, rather than depleting. Encourage your team to implement self-care strategies both at home as well as in the workplace. There is no one size fits all, so encourage your team to share ideas, try to new strategies and proactively practice self-care.

Be Flexible. As veterinary professionals, most of us can’t have the flexibility of working from home. However, there are many other ways we can offer flexible arrangements for our team. In their research Identifying and Evaluating Job Stress within the Small Animal Veterinary Profession, Meehan and Bradley (2007) identify key areas where reasonable adjustments may support small animal veterinarians to reduce their workplace stress. Adjustments to things like limiting the number of consults facilitated per day, the amount of time and caseload of surgery per day and the number of euthanasias per week were all suggestions to reduce veterinary workplace stress. The simple rule is: if your business can allow for it, go for it!

Encourage Comradery and Provide Time for Social Engagement. Social wellness is just as crucial in establishing a culture of wellness as physical and mental wellbeing. Most veterinary professionals spend more time at work than they do with loved ones at home. Create time and space for your team to engage with each other in a social capacity. After all, no one can be all work, all the time! Social engagement and comradery can support teams to develop trust. Trust in our team is where employees feel comfortable and safe to be vulnerable, share weaknesses and fears and admit when they have made mistakes.

Provide Resources and Training. Emotional Intelligence, resilience and communication are all skills that can be learned, just as exceptional veterinary professionals learn technical skills. As with going to university to become a veterinarian, we cannot expect our team to know where to start upskilling on their own. Provide resources and further training to develop the emotional intelligence and resilience abilities of your team.

Develop Standards of Care for Each Other In Stressful Times. It is very common for veterinary professionals to be proud of the standards of care they deliver for their patients and their clients. But what about the standards of care we deliver to each other? Within the team, it is important to share information about each other relating to stress. What are your warning signs? How can your colleagues support you when they see them? Develop a ‘standard of care’ which you all commit to in supporting each other.

Creating a culture of wellness doesn’t happen overnight. However, with ongoing focus, innovating of new ways of working, and normalising stress and self-care, veterinary leaders can promote a culture of wellness within their teams.

Article written by Victoria Koks BGS (Ed), Cert IV VN, AVN, RVN, VTS (Nutrition).

Victoria is a consultant at Crampton Consulting Group who is passionate about supporting members of the veterinary industry.

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