Change comes from the top. If we want to see real relief from burnout, it has to start with strong leadership reshaping our animal hospitals into positive, healthy, and safe places to work. That’s no easy lift, especially when there’s so much outside of their control: from the actions of each client to the unpredictable nature of the pets seen on a daily basis. So how can we as practice managers, practice owning vets, or even lead techs foster a healthier workplace to avoid burnout?
We sat down with Charlotte “Char” Weir, Roo’s VP of New Markets and Industry Relations who has seen it all as a Practice Manager for 3 years and a multi-site Senior Director of Operations for 6 years. She currently runs the Houston clinic, 2525 Sunset Veterinarians with her Hospital Administrator, Erin Rice, whom Char hand picked because she embodies all the traits of an ideal manager: Erin has high emotional intelligence and exceptional communication skills that help her train and retain a top notch team.
Drawing From this incredible body of experience, Char has some amazing tips for how we can make our veterinary workplaces happier, safer, and way more fun!
Leaders in empathy and compassion
As leaders in your practices, you set the tone and create the culture. Anyone can step up and be a leader, it doesn’t have to come with a job title (though we’ll admit that’s sometimes helpful in getting people to listen).
As professional caregivers, empathy is a superpower of all vets, techs, and practice managers, but as many studies have found, it’s not an unlimited resource. “Empathy is required to function in these roles,” says Char, “And as a leader, you have to be accountable to refill that piggy bank. Because every day there are deductions: It’s either a client deduction or a pet deduction — a pet passing, a pet biting you, pet pooping your pocket… [Clients] coming in hot, their pet’s sick, their pet’s been hit by a car… It’s an emotionally-charged environment, and you’re sustaining these deductions. That energy transfers to your team as they come through the door.”
Managers see this daily, witnessing the real time drain on their team, but it’s what you do about it that makes the difference and separates a great leader from the pack. Char has found a lot of success following a simple 3 step cycle:
- Be an active listener with your team
- Pay close attention to detail
- Be intentional with your actions
It all starts with identifying things that will be motivating, fun, and relaxing: activities and workplace culture that will recharge your team’s batteries and help them avoid burnout. Which sounds simple enough, but it’s not. This actually takes hard work and requires learning a lot about your team.
Here are a few ideas Char had success with in her practices. This doesn’t mean these will work for everyone, Char listened to her staff and these ideas came from them. “Every team is so different,” says Char, “And there’s no magic unlock. You just have to sit back, learn, and be open to it.”
Create a nap room
As a manager, building a nap room is probably very far from your top priority. In fact, it probably seems counterintuitive or just plain unproductive. But Char came up with the idea from listening to her team, and as it turns out, it was a huge hit!
After noticing her staff typically liked to crash on their lunch breaks, Char decided to designate a room as the Nap Room and filled it with couches, blankets, pillows, and other comforts. “They’re on their feet all day long,” says Char, “The techs are hustling, they’re lifting large animals, they’re physically fatigued by lunch.” And when you eat lunch, your body has to digest it — that drains energy, too!
Not everyone uses the Nap Room to nap. Some use it as a break room, eat lunch in there, or just put on headphones and take a moment to rest. What matters most is how vets and techs feel when they leave the break room. “They’re coming back refreshed and ready to work, and feeling good and energetic,” Char reports, “They’ve had a Zen break from barking dogs and clients.” And it should come as no surprise that well-rested staff provide better care.
By dedicating an area of your workplace to rest, you’re giving your staff an opportunity and permission to recharge, which is a great way to avoid burnout! After all, burnout occurs when people become totally depleted because they aren’t getting that chance to rest. A Nap Room certainly seems like a zany idea on the surface, but when you put it in those terms, it’s kind of a no brainer.
“Great Day” basket vs. “Not-So-Great Day” basket
Whenever Char starts out at a new clinic, she begins by listening. One way to do that is her dueling baskets exercise. She puts out two baskets in a common area, one gets labeled “Today was a Great Day” and the other gets labeled “Today was a Not-So-Great Day.” Then, each team member gets a tennis ball that they can put in either basket at the end of the day.
Char notes it’s very important that there are no names on the tennis balls, it’s about observing which basket fills up today and why. “Sometimes I would hear people slam dunk on me, you know? It’s that bad!” If Char noticed the “Bad Day” basket completely full with balls spilling out, she’d ask herself “What happened today?”
“Every team has its own DNA, right? And they respond differently to stresses… It taught me how that team functions under client stress, stress of change internally, external weather-related stress (because that’s actually a big stressor).” Relying on this exercise, Char was able to immediately understand how various obstacles impacted her teams, which in turn helped her preemptively avoid various stressors that could lead to team burnout — or at the very least respond to them (sometimes stress is just inevitable).
This foundation of understanding opens the door to having meaningful conversations with your team that build trust. From there, you can really start to pay attention to detail, leading to intentional actions that solve problems. Boom — happy workplace, healthy staff!
Find the right team building exercises for your team
At Char’s clinic, 2525 Sunset Veterinarians, their team planted succulents in various animal-themed pots that they then decorated and cared for. Not only did the pots bring warmth and fun to the workplace, but it provided an outlet for staff members to express their individuality.
The experience itself was filled with laughs and was memorable for everyone. “Planting the succulents was a mess,” Char recounts, “We had a fertilizer bag came in that was of course shipped during summer in Houston. So it was ready to blow up. So I had to literally disable the fertilizer bomb. We were all laughing about it. I thought it was gonna blow up in my face!” The pots were eventually put in the front lobby, and ended up putting a smile on everyone’s faces — even the clients!
Another really successful team building exercise was Vet Tech Yoga (Erin’s idea), which is exactly what it sounds like: yoga with specific stretches designed to help vet techs relieve job-related stress. Those techs were then able to incorporate those exercises into their daily practice to help alleviate the aches and soreness that come from wrestling dogs all day. The event was so popular, Char’s hospital made it part of their routine, taking virtual classes regularly as a team before work.
It doesn’t matter what you do, the benefits come from spending time together as a team and doing something intentional. Establishing a strong support network for your team is yet another great way to avoid workplace burnout because, as we covered before, just having a safe person to talk with can go a long way.
Celebrate diversity and individuality (see also: The Sticker Bar)
Burnout isn’t something that only affects vets and techs — plenty of practice managers feel burnt out, too! And Char has noticed a similar misstep that many young PMs make: many of these managers are getting burned out expending a lot of effort trying to duplicate their “ideal” (in their mind) employee. But this sets you up for failure.
“Celebrate the diversity you have,” Char touts, and that definitely belongs on a t-shirt somewhere. “Just like every pet that comes through the door is different, every team member is different. They have their own aspirations, their own motivations, their own personality… If you try to replicate, replicate, replicate, it creates a vanilla environment. I like that my guys have their own personalities!”
As it turns out, one of the easiest ways to avoid burnout in your workplace is just to let people be themselves.
Enjoy the many benefits of strong leadership
“As a manager it’s not about you. Your success and your results are driven by your team and your ability to guide and mentor and grow that team,” says Char. On that note, Char would very much like to give a shout out to Erin Rice, who makes all of the above possible, and her incredible team at 2525 Sunset Veterinarians. “They are irreplaceable, magical, and the most competent vet team I have ever had the honor to work with. I am so proud of them and all we have accomplished.”
Happy vets, techs, and staff members are healthier, perform better, and easier to retain. As a recent JAVMA study found, all this equates to a real economic impact for animal hospitals. When you’re building on a foundation of trust and respect, your business objectives just fall in line.
“If you’re behind on trust or you’re behind on empathy, or you’re behind on really trying to take the intentional time to get to know who they are, you’re never gonna accomplish anything,” says Char. “Once you have the trust of your team, you can accomplish everything!”