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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Finding the Joy in Veterinary Work

Veterinary work is deeply meaningful. Why, then, do we not see a ubiquitous sense of joy in the community of people serving the profession?

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on that very topic.

Hosted by Veterinary Integration Solutions and facilitated by Dr. Ivan Zakharenkov, myself and the incomparable Alyssa Mages, co-founder of Empowering Veterinary Teams and Dr. Nicholas Nelson, COO with BluePearl explored various facets of the challenges, and opportunities, we face in veterinary medicine.

While the discussion was live, VIS recorded it. If you weren't able to attend you can check it out HERE.

The audience engagement was vibrant but we ran short on time to address many of the questions and comments. Given the energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity of the attendees I thought it might be nice to respond to some of heir questions here, post hoc.

Here are a few of those questions and how I might have responded during the live discussion:

What motivates a seasoned vet v. a new vet?

We touched on the topic of generations during the discussion so I believe this question had that in mind. The truth is, I do not subscribe to the belief that entire generations are motivated differently. Rather, I think motivation is driven by some basic psychological needs for all people, regardless of age. When those needs are met in meaningful ways it tends to contribute to a sense of enthusiasm, energy, and intention. However, how those needs are met likely varies from person to person, even within the same generation. The research suggests personality difference (e.g., how we are motivated) has a greater variability within a generational group than between generations. What drives one Baby Boomer may not have the same affect for another Baby Boomer.

With that in mind, it behooves leaders to get to know the people on their teams in an intentional and authentic way so that they can learn how to best meet the needs of each individual. Understanding what energizes the folks on your team - new vet, seasoned vet, kennel tech, veterinary technician, etc. - can help you gain insight into how best to craft the environment they work in so as to maximize their opportunity for enthusiastic motivation.

What's the one thing that needs to change to achieve work satisfaction?

I'm going to cheat here and offer TWO things. :)

Some of the research suggests two variable may be among the top predicters of job satisfaction: perceived quality of leadership and an overall sense of purpose in the work.

In my mind, these factors go hand in hand.

There are two statements that seem to correlate well with an employee's belief that they work alongside high-quality leadership. They are:

  1. My leader cares about me as a person.

  2. My leader cares about my success.

What we need in veterinary medicine is a community that believes - truly, deeply, genuinely believes - the people they work for care about them.

One way leaders can show they care is to help enable the experiences that often underlie a sense of positive purpose in the work. For example, leaders can help imbue a sense of mattering and meaningfulness by noticing the strengths and efforts of the people around them, affirming what they see, and showing them the positive contributions they make to the lives of others.

I believe with all my heart and mind, if we can train veterinary leaders to do these things with intention and consistency, we will see job satisfaction scores soar.

What's the best way to make an owner of a clinic realize they need to treat Millennials differently?

Truth be told, I do not subscribe to the belief that different generations have sweeping, hardwired, universal differences. This is borne out in much of the research as well.

While different generations may have different tendencies, it is counterproductive to assume everyone in any age group fits in a particular box.

All people, regardless of age, have similar basic needs. From my perspective, what this question is really asking is, "What's the best way to help a clinic owner see there is more to recruitment/retention/job satisfaction/motivation/etc. than 'the job' itself?"

All that said, the answer depends on what drives the owner. Are they after profits? Volume? A happy team?

I recommend starting there - exploring with the clinic owner what they are looking for in their hospital. How do they define "success". This means sitting down and literally asking them that, and other, questions. Get curious.

Then ask them what seems to be working right now, in terms of motivating the team to work toward the owner's goals. And explore where the owner feels things are coming up short.

Finally, ask them if they know what motivates or lights up each and every person on the team. If they don't know, how could they find out? What would it be like to have a full team of lit up, energized, and motivated veterinary professionals all working toward the same goals?

Ultimately, my answer to questions like this is "Curiosity". Getting curious - genuinely curious - is a phenomenal way to discover solutions to problems.

How do teams identify and turn around 'toxic positivity'?

A common misconception about Positive Psychology is that it advocates for a "blinders" approach to life - ignore the 'bad', embrace only the 'good'. Which is why I'm grateful for this question.

Toxic positivity is unhealthy - for individuals and teams - because it attempts to ignore or dismiss the normal, healthy, necessary "negative" experiences all human beings face.

I did some work with a manager who had a "good vibes only" policy in her practice. If you showed up in a "bad mood" you got sent home. Quite literally, she expected everyone to be happy at work and actively enforced it.

She came to me because she couldn't retain team members.

The human brain is not built to be in a state of permanent happiness. It's not built to be in any emotional state with any level of permanence. We have labeled emotions positive and negative based on how they feel to us but the truth is ALL emotion is valuable and necessary. Sometimes our emotions serves us well, sometimes not but dismissing a swath is dangerous and unhealthy.

In a compelling piece of research, Barb Fredrickson discovered that attempting to maintain a "happy" state all the time actually resulted in significantly more negative emotions, increased depressive symptoms, and decreased overall life satisfaction.

In the workplace, the toxicity of a "good vibes only" policy damages psychological safety, a necessary ingredient for high-functioning, innovative, and resilient teams.

Quite literally, in attempting to have a "happy all the time" work environment we end up putting the brain in a state of constant distress and limited function.

Negative emotions are real, valid, and totally normal and should be treated as such outside and inside the workplace.

How do you fit in staff meetings to help the team feel more invested when they don't have any time for a meeting?

I felt this way for many years. As a hospital owner and manager, I'd often let the perception of the urgent overtake what was important and "kick the can down the road" to get the immediate off the checklist.

Please do not make the same mistakes as I.

In his phenomenal books on Positive Leadership, Dr. Kim Cameron talks about some research done in a variety of organizations. The goal was to implement, and track outcomes from, an intensive one-on-one manager-to-report program.

Managers were trained on a specific kind of one-on-one in which they met with each report a minimum of once a month for a minimum of one hour each meeting.

I tell veterinary leaders about this and I can see their eyes grow large as they formulate all the reasons why something like that could never work in their hospital.

The most common argument? Who has the time for that!?

In the research the managers often had between 5 and 10 reports. That's 5 to 10 additional hours of meetings every month, at a minimum. Once implemented, the program resulted in significant improvements in the the organizations (I believe across 16 different industries, by the way).

Productivity, performance, job satisfaction - metrics like these improved by leaps and bounds. And, so long as the program continued, the improvements stuck.

After 18 months, the managers were asked how the program impacted their time. The researchers were curious if the "extra" meetings - time taken away from "doing their work" - made it harder to get things done.

Across all participants, the average manager response was that not only did the program NOT make things harder - it actually resulted in more efficiency. They told the researchers that, on average, it seemed to open up 7 hours of additional time every month.

With team members being fully informed, clear on expectations, supported in their success, able to ask questions and provide feedback in a structured, routine, expected, safe environment.....they stopped bugging their bosses and got down and dirty getting things done more effectively than before the program was put in place.

It feels like we don't have time to have important, effective meetings.

The truth is, we are missing out by avoiding them.

Why is doing good harming us so badly?

Reading this question broke my heart.

The work we do in this profession is good, worthy, important work. It matters. And we matter.

Honestly, this question is a big part of why I do the work I do now. I truly believe every person who comes to this profession deserves to be sustainably fulfilled by it.

We have gotten exceptionally good at caring for others, doing good for others, extending ourselves for others. It is a large part of what makes us the wonderful, respected, and loved community we are.

I think the next step in our evolution is to turn those heart-driven talents inward and learn, as a profession, to care for ourselves, do good for ourselves, energize each other, and uplift our collective heart.

For me, that starts with leadership.

In any team environment - and veterinary medicine is primarily a team sport - the leader has the most influence over the culture and experience. It's time we teach our leaders how to cultivate an environment in which it is safe to be authentically human, enable the experiences of mattering and meaningfulness, empower people to reach toward their greatest potential, and connect with team members in a partnership of caring success.

The good news is, these are all teachable skills. And if there's anything we veterinary professionals are good at, it's learning and mastering new skills.

Let's get to work, together.

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