“We just have to get through this busy time and things will go back to normal.”
“We are going into winter so things will slow down and become more normal.”
“I wish things would go back to normal.”
These are statements I hear daily in almost every veterinary hospital. Here’s the reality check. This is the normal, not the old or new, but rather it IS. We need to stop making excuses or waiting for things to change. Instead we need to accept the extra busy state of our hospitals and the shortness of staff in them. We need to stop making excuses as to why our team can’t take breaks, why we are burned out, and why we can’t be happy in our jobs.
I’m Tired of Excuses
How can we practice the best medicine with the resources we have? That is a question I ask clinics all the time. The biggest resource we need to focus on right now are the people within our hospital. There’s not enough of them.
If you ran out of oxygen, would you try to perform surgery on a patient? No. If you ran out of rabies vaccine, would you substitute it with something else? No. If your dental prophy machine broke, would you continue to admit patients for the day that had dental cleanings scheduled? No. So why do we try to fit in more appointments or fill our surgery schedules to max capacity when we don’t have the people resources available to be successful?
Unfortunately, I hear from teams worldwide that their hospitals are short staffed, overtime is accruing daily and the leadership keeps adding in more appointments to “squeeze people in.” In many hospitals the one or two hour lunch time that was previously blocked off is now used to catch up or squeeze in clients who “must be seen.” Just stop with the excuses as to why everyone is tired, burned out or short staffed. Put the energy of blaming and waiting for things to change into change.
I Don’t Have All the Answers
I don’t have all the answers of how best to manage the current state of veterinary medicine. Pets need to be seen, particularly if they are experiencing illness or injury, but veterinary medicine professionals need to be able to care for themselves. Most veterinary professionals are at max capacity with regards to the hours worked and the stress level felt.
What I do know is veterinary medicine is seeing a rapid exodus out of the profession. It is on fire. Veterinary technician/nurse schools are closing and those that are open rarely have full classes. Every day, not just weekly, I read a post from a veterinarian or technician/nurse stating they are leaving the profession. They are done. They wished they never entered the field. Let me repeat. We need to practice the best medicine possible with the resources we have and right now we don’t have enough team members and those that we do have are not healthy.
"We cannot be everything to everyone."
How to Manage This Normal
The challenge is how do we manage the busy, the difficult clients and the short staff teams that we have. We need to think outside the box and do the abnormal. We need to start figuring out how many appointments we can book, what schedule we can create and how many surgeries we should schedule in order for our teams to be happier, healthier and not burned out.
Why not block of enough time so teams can take actual breaks? I recently had a conversation with a hospital that said they used to have two hours blocked off for lunch and catch-up. Now it is occupied with catch-up and squeezing in owners. I asked, “What not block of 3 hours or stop trying to squeeze in appointments?” The response I received was that clients need to be squeezed in because pets were sick and needed to be seen. So then block off 3 hours and stop saying yes to everything.
I understand the guilt and struggle that everyone in veterinary medicine is feeling. We want to help all the pets. If we say no, does that mean a pet will become sicker or die? Who will take care of the pets if we say no? Don’t we have a moral obligation to say yes to every pet so we help them all?
Here’s the reality. We cannot be everything to everyone. That’s a difficult statement to hear and even harder to understand. We cannot be everything to everyone. We cannot save all the pets. We will not make all the owners happy. We cannot do it all because if we try people quit, become angry or worse...hurt themselves mentally or physically. We have to realize we need to say no. We must say no. It's no longer an option not to.
Take Care of the People
When we shift the mindset from “do everything for everyone” to helping ourselves we can better serve our clients, pets and hospitals. The hardest thing about this is refusing to allow our guilt, our imposter syndrome, our “less than” thoughts take over. They consume us and cause us to believe we need to do more, be better and give more of ourselves. We are at a point where most of us don’t have any more to give, but we think we do, and it’s this belief that is hurting us.
Leaders need to start evaluating schedules, both personal and appointment schedules. Ask employees what they need and what boundaries are important to them. Do they need to leave a certain time each day or have a particular day off each week?
I had a conversation with a veterinarian who stated that she had burned out and was thinking of quitting her current practice when she realized she had to set a boundary. She was angry about not getting to say goodnight to her kids each night. She informed her hospital that if they wanted to keep her she needed to leave by 6:00 pm each night. They honored that boundary and she got to go home at 6:00 pm on the weekdays. The tradeoff was she sometimes had to complete her medical records on the weekend. That’s right, she would leave the hospital without all her records written. The best part was, the world didn’t explode when she left each day at 6:00 pm. She went home, read a book to her kids and tucked them into bed. Records were written on the weekend. She became much happier because her boundary was honored.
Leaders should start asking each employee, “What do you need? What boundaries are important to you?” I find most boundaries are reasonable and necessary. Boundaries exist because they are what is important to that person. Boundaries speak to the very core of who we are as a person, what is important to us and what makes us happy.
I go for a trail run with my dogs most days. When I’m traveling I still try to get a morning run every day. There are days I accept that I cannot go on a run. For a few days here or there my boundary isn’t honored. I may have all day meetings, be too tired physically or need to catch up on work. That’s okay because most days I get to run. Running is important to me. It makes me happy and keeps me from becoming bitter, angry and yes, burned out. If you’re reading this, what is important to you in order for you to be happy and feel complete in life? What are your must boundaries?
Once each team member has been asked about their personal needs, the hospital needs to start getting creative to honor those needs. Rarely do I find the needs unreasonable or excessive. Leaders should ask the team for ideas and solutions. Put it all on the table and figure out what ideas may help the team the best.
Can you change your current appointment schedule to allow for more breaks?
Can you rework the personal schedules to allow for less overtime?
Can we network with local veterinary or technician schools to hire some part time help to alleviate the workload of the current team?
Can we educate owners on what is an emergency so they know when to call or come in?
Can we inform owners about how the team is short staffed and demand kindness is required?
How about saying no to clients? Does the vaccine need to happen this month? Why not two or three months from now?
What about closing for a day for a fun team outing?
What about a spa day for every employee?
How about starting the day with something fun? Dance to a song, planking challenge, scavenger hunt? Open 30 minutes later than usual once a week and have some fun.
How can we honor the team with items/awards they want, not just pizza/donuts? New stethoscopes for everyone? Nice winter coat? Provide extra vacation days? Send to a conference with all expenses paid?
How can we educate the team when we are so busy? Can we hire in an outside trainer and close for a day to learn CPR, dental prophy techniques, etc.?
Right now is the time to give back to teams. Veterinary hospitals have never been so busy. Therefore, profits are at a high for most hospitals. We need to start taking care of our employees instead of waiting for things to “go back to normal.” We don’t have all the people resources we need. Therefore, we need to put better systems in place to take care of those that we do have available instead of burning them out or exhausting them to a point they leave our hospitals.
I don’t have a “one size fits all” solution, but what I have are suggestions to start making change. The challenge is yours to take on. If you are an employee, what do you need to be happier and healthier? Go ask for that. You're in a great position to get what you want. Without you, your hospital will be even more short staffed.
If you are a hospital leader, what can you do to help your team get back to being happier and less stressed? Ask them for their help and then start making changes instead of waiting for things to go back to the way they were. Stop apologizing about being short staffed and instead bring the schedules to meet the level of staffing you DO have.
The one thing I feel confident about is, this is normal. This is veterinary medicine in the year 2021, going into 2022. It will eventually change again in the future, perhaps get even busier or perhaps slower. For right now however, this is what veterinary medicine IS. So we need to ask, “how can we practice the best veterinary medicine possible with the resources we have?” This is the new normal so stop making excuses as to why your team is unhappy or why you are running around feeling like your head was cut off. Instead, work on creating a happier workplace because now is the normal and it’s not going anywhere.
For extra credit refer to my blog on how to start a Wellness Plan in your own hospital.