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Budget-friendly ways to show staff they’re appreciated (especially during a pandemic!)

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It’s been a long, tough haul for veterinary teams. How do you show your appreciation to staff for heroically rising to the occasion day after day? Your colleagues have some suggestions.

It’s not the first time NEWStat’s reached out to AAHA-accredited hospitals to find out how they’re helping staff stay sane.

This time, we asked them what nifty, inexpensive ideas they’ve come up with to show staff how much they appreciate all they’re doing.

Tammy Dugal, co-owner of AAHA-accredited Community Animal Hospital of Royal Palm Beach in Royal Palm Beach, Florida, recommends gratitude, lip balm, and treats: at their last staff meeting, the hospital owners and veterinarian put a personalized post-it note on everyone’s paystub and wrote an individual note of appreciation and encouragement to each employee. “Then, I added a gift card to each envelope,” said Dugal. She also passed around a bowl of balms in assorted flavors. Simple and effective—the staff loved it.

Emily LeBeau, director of operations at AAHA-accredited Pittsfield Veterinary Hospital in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, gave props by handing out goodie bags stuffed with snacks. Early in the pandemic, they had to split the staff of 45 into three teams working different days, so she started leaving a goodie bag for each team when they came in. When the staff came back together as one team after being separated for three months, LeBeau called it a “rough” transition.

“We were looking for a quick morale booster and I had some leftover snacks, so I went around with the bag and jokingly said, ‘We’re going to do three o’clock snack time,’” LeBeau recalls. The next day, somebody joked back, ‘Well, it’s 3:05, where are the snacks?’”

It evolved from there. Now, every day at 3:00 p.m., LeBeau goes around to everyone bearing a tray stacked with snacks, “Everything from healthy fruit and nuts to Pop-Tarts and Slim Jims.”

“It’s pretty cheap. I buy some in bulk, so I can afford the more expensive, healthier snacks. We had no idea the impact it would have on the staff. People will say ‘I’m going on lunch at snack time, so you better grab me something salty.’ Or they’ll come to my door and say, ‘Hey, I was curbside with a client during snack time; can I grab something?’” She says snack time will live on after the pandemic: “It’s now in the budget.”

“It seems [unbelievable] that something so silly and relatively inexpensive brought the staff together,” LeBeau says. “[But] it’s been a huge morale booster for everybody. And it’s nothing big. It’s really easy to do.”

Others are also giving thanks through food.

Niza DiCarlo, practice manager at AAHA-accredited Animal Care Wellness Center in San Bernardino, California, says her hospital’s been buying lunch for the whole staff several days a week since the pandemic began. “When people finally get to sit down and eat a hot meal, that truly is medicine for the soul,” she says. “I’ve tried other things, but when you give staff a hot meal and it’s ready to eat, it’s good for morale.” They always order from restaurants that have been facing their own challenges during the pandemic. DiCarlo calls it a win-win, because they’re supporting other local businesses and talking about them on social media, which amplifies the effect: “Some of our clients have tried those places because we were raving about them online.”

“Staff looks forward to not having to pack lunch, and being fed.” She had one more inspiration: “I reached out to my drug reps, and some are sending lunches.”

DiCarlo says it’s made a remarkable difference: “It’s amazing how knowing you’re going to get a good lunch gives you something to look forward to,” she says. “It really is the little things right now.”

“Food!” agrees Amy Brauns, RVT, practice manager at AAHA-accredited Everhart Veterinary Medical Group just outside Baltimore, Maryland, which provides lunch for the staff once a week.

Make that food, and funny costumes.

Brauns is a self-confessed “Halloween junkie,” which inspired her idea of monthly “Spirit Week” events: staff pick a theme and everyone comes to work in costume. So far, they’ve done ’70s Week, Christmas Week, Superhero Week, and Disney Week, among others. Brauns says the hospital dress code requires staff to wear scrubs, but management relaxes that during Spirit Weeks, meaning team members have come to work dressed in everything from full costumes to themed T-shirts, augmented with goofy makeup, accessories, headbands, and masks. Brauns even hauls out seasonal decorations to put up around the hospital (tinsel during Christmas Week, jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween, etc.), and pipes theme-appropriate music through the hospital.

Staff members love it, Brauns says. It gives them something to look forward to all month, and many plan ahead for what costume to wear. Even clients are getting into the act: Brauns posts their Spirit Week schedules on social media, and clients regularly show up curbside with their pets decked out in costume.

She says it’s nice to see clients smiling again.

“In the beginning, clients were super cool with curbside and the new protocols,” Brauns says. “But over the past two months, that’s changed drastically.” But the pandemic has been hard for everyone—and frustrations are becoming more apparent. “My staff is feeling pretty beat up,” Brauns says. “It’s a tough job for them, so we try to do what we can for them.”

If cost is an issue, Mandie Montgomery, hospital manager at AAHA-accredited Alpine Animal Clinic in Helena, Montana, recommends putting together what she calls “COVID survival kits.” Basically, they’re grab bags full of goodies supplied by industry reps. Montgomery says, “We get lots of awesome freebies,” such as collapsible water bowls, key chains that dispense poop bags, and magnetic cellphone holders for cars. The hospital adds in T-shirts, colored pens, bandage scissors, everyone’s favorite Keurig drinks, and chocolate balls.

Lots of chocolate balls: “We do a lot of chocolate around here,” she laughs.

Cynthia Fiore, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Heron Creek Animal Hospital in North Port, Florida, says she’s done gift cards, food, and Friday happy hours with wine and beer, but found that the thing her staff appreciated the most was simply being told how much they were appreciated.

So, in addition to the gifts and libations, Fiore makes it a point to take employees aside and make specific mention of something outstanding they’ve done and how much she appreciates it. And she’s been impressed with how the whole staff has come together to support each other: “We have a whiteboard where we write little messages for each other, shoutouts like ‘Hey, Saturday crew! Awesome job!’”

She says it’s important to find different ways to praise and thank staff every day for the great job they’re doing—to take the time out from the “run, run, run; go, go, go; get the next patient in here” to pause, draw a deep breath, look at each other, and recognize, “Hey, we appreciate each other. We appreciate the team.”

Ideally, that appreciation will go both ways.

When Fiore came back after being out for two weeks dealing with family health issues, she was greeted by a sign that said Welcome back Dr. Fiore! Was she touched? Her voice breaks.

“Oh, my gosh. You have no idea.”

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/AaronAmat