As a veterinary locum in small animal emergency and critical care, I have worked in many different hospitals including academic and private practice. I’ve been fortunate to work in several veterinary workplaces comprised of cohesive teams that allow for a happy and efficient work environment. Unfortunately, not all veterinary hospitals are that way. Some practices have toxic work environments, which have a pronounced negative impact on the success of the veterinary team. A toxic environment occurs when there is broken communication and tension between staff members. The signs of a toxic veterinary workplace are explained below:
· When an individual lacks confidence, skills, or knowledge it impacts the rest of the team as co-workers lose trust in the individual’s abilities and might feel the need to check on the co-worker, which can lead to frustration or annoyance. Likewise, individuals might feel annoyed with new staff members not being able to perform duties, complete tasks, or make decisions with confidence, which can lead to employees being disrespectful to each other.
· Not feeling appreciated by clients or co-workers contributes to a toxic environment and is felt most frequently by technicians. Low appreciation typically stems from a lack of awareness of all the tasks other people do, as well as an absent perspective for an individual’s capabilities. This can lead to frustration when an individual’s education, knowledge, and skills are not recognized, as well as resentment if individuals trained on-the-job are given the same duties or pay as others who have received formal schooling.
· Coping with turnover due to clinic expansion or coverage for leave (e.g., maternity) is stressful for permanent employees, especially those who are resistant to change. This is probably because of the uncertainty of new staff members’ personalities, skills, and abilities, which can have a large impact on the permanent employees.
· When team members are not abiding by the same clinic rules or policies it can undermine an individual’s credibility. For example, if a veterinarian makes an exception for a client (i.e., “changes the rules”) after a technician has advised the client that it would not be possible due to clinic policy, this can have negative consequences and remove the feeling of functioning as a team.
· When team members are not held accountable for their actions, the lack of consequences can create a hostile environment and interpersonal tension in the clinic. For example, if a veterinarian is constantly fighting with staff or making negative comments about co-workers, but is not reprimanded despite complaints from other team members, the lack of consequences for bad behavior can decrease motivation in other clinic staff and enhance negativity in the work environment.
· When staff members are expected to perform tasks beyond their scope of practice, or tasks that are unrealistic given personnel or facility limitations, these unrealistic expectations can lead to a toxic environment. For example, asking technicians to “police” new veterinarians or remember all the subtle nuances between each veterinarian’s preferred way of practicing, can be perceived as overly high expectations. Likewise, when veterinarians are expected to multi-task and perform conflicting demands (e.g., having to help take radiographs rather than researching differential diagnoses for the patient), client service and animal safety can suffer.
· Conflicting demands also occur when team members receive conflicting messages from two or more people, which leaves them unsure about what they should do. Likewise, when a clinic is very busy or under-staffed, individuals can feel overwhelmed with not knowing which tasks should take priority. This is exacerbated in environments with poor communication when people are unaware of what other team members are doing. Resentment can be created with an individual feels they are extremely busy trying to manage conflicting demands, while perceiving that others are not doing as much. These feelings can also occur when team members are attempting to juggle management and clinical duties, or balance work duties with personal/family time.
· Lack of leadership can occur with absentee owners or managers, as well as ineffective leaders. It is a source of frustration that leads to resentment and confusion among team members. Sometimes when there are multiple owners or a lack of structure, confusion and frustration can occur because communication falters and decisions are inefficiently made.
So what can be done to prevent or repair toxic veterinary workplaces?
· There are many ways to show appreciation to veterinary team members such as providing small prizes or notes for staff that do something exceptional, reading thank you letters from clients during staff meetings, encouraging people to provide positive feedback to other coworkers, and hosting appreciation events such as parties or team excursions.
· Coping with turnover can be enhanced by recognizing that new staff members can bring refreshing change into a hospital team and that sometimes delegating duties to others can alleviate responsibilities on a single person and have benefit for the entire team.
· Rather than changing the rules for clients, it should be emphasized to the client that an exception is being made for them that is against hospital policy, in order to support what they were already told by another team member. This avoids undermining the other team member and ensures that everyone remains on the “same team” rather than being seen as self-serving.
· Lack of consequences can be rectified by ensuring that people are being held accountable for their actions when they negatively affect other team members.
· Unrealistic expectations and conflicting demands can be solved by staffing appropriately so that each individual can focus on their own duties and also maintain work-life balance. Clinics with higher non-veterinarian to veterinarian ratios function more efficiently and with a higher net practice income than clinics with lower ratios. Therefore, managers must review work hours and staffing levels to ensure team members are not feeling overwhelmed.
· A lack of leadership might be improved by ensuring there is a formal organization structure, consistent communication, and effective leadership skills.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She facilitates veterinary wellness workshops and retreats for students, veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.