Avoiding burnout–Part 2: How to help your staff thrive

Nobody has to tell veterinary professionals that on-the-job burnout is real. But what does it look like, and how can you avoid it?

In Avoiding burnout—Part 1: How to recognize it, veterinary consultant Josh Vaisman, CCFP, MAPPCP, shared his personal experience with burnout to help readers recognize the signs.

In Part 2, Vaisman, co-founder and lead consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting in Boulder, Colorado, shares tips and strategies to help your staff avoid burnout—and, more importantly, help them thrive.

The biggest issues that keep veterinary staff from thriving

According to Vaisman, there are “myriad” issues that can lead to burnout and keep staff from thriving: “As a profession, on average, we’re vastly underpaid. We overwork ourselves. We say ‘yes’ to too many things.”

But even if all these issues were to magically resolve themselves overnight, it doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to be fine. For Vaisman, it comes down to one important thought: “The absence of suffering is not necessarily thriving,” Vaisman said. “You can eliminate all of the problems that exist in the veterinary profession and that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll thrive.”

Vaisman believes that a lot of the challenges we face are due to a lack of knowledge and tools, because nobody teaches us how to create environments that contribute to human thriving: “How do we create a workplace in the veterinary space that allows people to be and feel their best at work so that, at the end of the day, they feel fulfilled?”  

He says people in the veterinary space, especially those in leadership positions, need to recognize that there are things they can do—most of which cost nothing except a little bit of time and intention—that can contribute to people “actually feeling energized by the challenging, exhausting work that we do [and thriving] despite the challenges and difficulties that we face.” 

How leaders can create an environment conducive to thriving

Vaisman says that a tremendously effective and incredibly simple method is to notice the good things that people are doing and affirm them on a regular basis: “You can’t underestimate the importance of feeling that who we are and what we do matters. It doesn’t take long and it doesn’t cost a penny.” 

He says research shows that a positive mindset directly contributes to job performance, job satisfaction, engagement, and the overall sense of fulfillment at work, and leaders can promote mindset by making it a point to intentionally notice the important things staff do, the things that matter, and then celebrate them.

What doesn’t work 

A lot of practices think tangible perks will help forestall burnout or help people feel better and thrive, whether it’s money or a parking space near the door. But that doesn’t actually do the job. 

Not long term. 

“A lot of those tangible things tend to be quick fixes, and some of them are necessary,” says Vaisman. Like a good wage. “We have to pay people for the value of their work. But I also think that’s a basic necessity. That’s not necessarily something that contributes to wellbeing in the long term.”

Financial stress is a detractor from wellbeing, but there’s a point in time where you make enough and it’s not going to make a big difference, he says: “Those kinds of things are what we call extrinsic or externalized motivators. They’re blips that give us a spike of wellbeing.”

But at some point in time, because of what’s known as hedonic adaptation, those spikes cease to have an effect.

Vaisman gives an example of hedonic adaptation: “If you give somebody a raise or a bonus to help them feel happier at work, they eventually become accustomed to that raise or bonus, and then they need an even bigger one next time to have the same kind of boost, and then another, bigger, one, and before you know it, you’re chasing a goalpost that you can never reach.”  

Vaisman loves the fact that a lot of practices do team-bonding events like pizza parties and says they’re important, but it’s a mistake to rely on them: “If that’s the only tool we’re pulling from the toolbox to create wellbeing in the veterinary space, we’re consistently setting ourselves up for failure,” Vaisman said. “We’re leaving out what seems to make the most difference: We’re leaving out the personal.”

What are practices with thriving teams doing differently?

Vaisman says his leadership workshops boil down to two important principles:

  1. Other people matter. 
  2. Leadership is relationships. 

“Period,” he says. “That’s it.” 

Research shows that when people feel like they matter to their leader, both on a personal and a professional level, Vaisman says, “That’s a team that’s high-performing and that’s an organization that’s likely to have long-term productivity and profitability above and beyond their competitors.” 

That’s the big difference between practices that thrived during COVID and practices that didn’t, Vaisman says: the ones that thrived were the ones where leaders “really, genuinely, authentically, and intentionally” leaned into the relationships with their staff and found ways to care about them as people—and care about their success.

How one hospital turned things around

Vaisman mentions a large hospital he worked with in 2020 during the height of the pandemic that was able to turn the tide of discontent among their staff and help them thrive. 

“It was a big practice with a staff of 160 and a leadership team of 34, and they mounted a tremendously successful intervention.” 

Vaisman helped them create a very simple check-in program in which every person in the hospital was guaranteed to have somebody who’d gone through the leadership training sit down with them off the floor and, undistracted, once a month for roughly 10 minutes, just check in on them. They asked simple questions like, “Hey, how are things going? How are you doing? What are you proud of from this last month? Where are you struggling? Where could you use some extra support?” 

“That’s it,” Vaisman says. “Once a month, and it made a huge difference in that practice. That’s what positive leadership is about.”

Other people matter.

Leadership is relationship.

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