When it comes to the high rates of burnout in the veterinary industry, the source of the problem might not be what you think. W. Edwards Deming, a key player in the Japanese economic miracle and a proponent of continuous quality improvement philosophy, believed that a staggering 94% of workplace issues are due to systemic factors, leaving just 6% to individual staff-level factors. Recent research supports this perspective, highlighting the role of organizational system factors in creating major workplace challenges.
A business system is a defined set of principles, practices, and procedures applied to specific activities to achieve a specific result. It’s about creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) that ensure everything gets done correctly.
In veterinary medicine, there are numerous overarching systems in place, such as AAHA guidelines, Fear Free handling, legislative regulations, and health and safety protocols. However, at the practice level, veterinary medicine can lack the clarity of these systems, leading to a lack of purpose and drive on an individual level.
Individuals can struggle to find their place within their workplace culture and values. They may not even be fully aware of their practice’s values and business goals. The result? A lack of direction, reduced productivity, and increased stress and burnout.
Beyond Band-Aid Solutions
When seeking solutions for veterinary team burnout, we often encounter suggestions like mental health apps, resilience training, lunch-break yoga, and stress-relief meditation. But these are mere band-aids on a gaping wound. An employee in a chronically understaffed department, lacking appropriate systems and modern tools, won’t find their burnout cured by a meditation app: operational bottlenecks and understaffing need to be addressed first.
Just like when presented with a limping patient, the exam doesn’t end at the paw. We need to examine the whole, interconnected system. The focus should be on improving systems, not just individuals.
Cognitive Bias and Toxic Work Environments
One of the reasons we tend to focus on the individual level rather than the big picture is cognitive bias. This skewed thinking can lead to relational aggression and a generally toxic work environment.
Cognitive bias, which is the tendency to make skewed judgments based on personal experiences and beliefs, often leads us to focus on individual issues rather than examining the larger systems at play. This bias can perpetuate relational aggression and contribute to a toxic work environment, as we may overlook systemic issues and place undue blame or pressure on individuals.
Relational aggression (also known as social aggression) is a type of behavior in which harm is caused by manipulating relationships. This could be in the form of social exclusion, spreading rumors, or damaging someone’s reputation. Unlike physical aggression, relational aggression is often covert and can be difficult to identify. In the context of a workplace, relational aggression can take the form of gossiping about coworkers, excluding certain team members from activities or decisions, or undermining a colleague’s reputation or work. This behavior can contribute to a negative work environment, leading to increased stress, reduced productivity, and higher turnover rates.
Strong leadership is crucial in addressing this bias. Leaders should actively work to recognize and mitigate their own cognitive biases and foster this awareness within their team. This involves being mindful of how personal experiences and perceptions can influence decision-making and interactions with others.
Addressing Systemic Issues
Inefficient systems can include the tools staff use every day. Outdated software can lead to slower work processes and security vulnerabilities. If we only focus on training employees to use these outdated systems more efficiently, we might be missing the fact that these systems themselves are the root cause of the problem.
Merely patching up these issues can lead to employee frustration and disengagement, decreased productivity, and even data breaches. The solution may involve investing in new software, updating data security policies, or implementing training programs to help employees adjust to changes.
So what can we do?
To really address burnout in the veterinary industry, it’s crucial to look at the bigger picture. By considering how larger systems affect individual behavior, we can work towards creating a more supportive, efficient, and healthy work environment for everyone involved. Because when it comes to burnout, it’s not just about the individual – it’s about the system.
Addressing burnout in the veterinary industry indeed requires a holistic approach, focusing not only on individual well-being but also on optimizing the systems and processes that shape daily work life. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Software Upgrade
Use comprehensive practice management software like Digitail to streamline operations. From appointment scheduling and client communication to electronic medical records, Digitail can reduce paperwork and free up your team to focus on patient care.
2. SOPs and Clear Processes
Implement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all routine tasks. This provides a consistent approach to common tasks and ensures everyone on the team understands their responsibilities. SOPs can also help train new staff and ensure continuity of care during staff changes.
3. Improved Communication
Foster a culture of open communication. Regular team meetings can provide a platform for discussing concerns, proposing solutions, and making collective decisions about SOPs and other practice policies.
4. Continuing Education
Encourage ongoing learning and development. This can include training in new SOPs, learning about the latest veterinary practices, and personal growth opportunities.
5. Workload Management
Distribute tasks evenly among the team to prevent overload. This might involve hiring additional staff, using veterinary technicians more effectively, or adjusting SOPs to improve efficiency.
6. Wellness Initiatives
Promote well-being through initiatives like regular breaks, flexible work hours, and mental health resources.
7. Client Education
Educate clients about the realities of veterinary work to manage expectations and foster appreciation for your team’s work.
By addressing these areas, you can help to create a more positive, efficient, and supportive work environment that benefits not only your team but also your patients and your bottom line.