Making veterinary hospitals a better place to work

Mindful May Webinar Q&A with Dr Megan Alderson & Dr Shalsee Vigeant

Dr Megan Alderson, veterinarian & practice owner of The Strand Vet and Dr Shalsee Vigeant, DVM, CEO of Animal Emergency Centre joined us at our Auckland HQ for a live global webinar to share tips on how veterinary professionals can bring mindfulness to the workplace. With a combined 50 years of veterinary experience and knowledge, Megan & Shalsee are paving the way of implementing mindfulness and well-being within their teams and workplace. 

Both veterinarians spoke about making veterinary hospitals a better place to work as part of our 2021 Mindful May series. Here are the highlights from the Audience Q&A. 

What is mindfulness?

Megan: Mindfulness is about living in a way that deals with whatever stress is going on every day within your present work environment and personal life. It's about just living your life in a different way, and you have to practice it constantly. It doesn’t just mean meditation for half an hour everyday. There are all sorts of things you can do to incorporate mindfulness into your day. You can even practice it as you mop the floor!

If you had to choose one initiative to start the journey to ‘better’, what would it be?

Megan: At our clinic, every morning, I introduced a 10 minute mindfulness team session a day, just for us - no phone, no patients, no clients. At first, the team had mixed reactions but 18 months later, it’s celebrated and they love it! It's just that tiny little shift to be able to put ourselves first as veterinary professionals, even it’s just 10 minutes a day.

Shalsee: This goes to show that even when staff roll their eyes at new initiatives, you still have to start investing in your staff first. If they see that you're focusing on them and they matter, that’s going to roll out into how they feel about this profession and how they feel about each other, which makes a difference in our workday.

If you aren't at that point yet where everyone is open to the 10 minutes, start rolling it out to those who are interested in themselves. Build up a group that will be supportive and are willing to collaborate with others.

How do you cope when you make a mistake, and how do you recover and learn for the next time you're faced with a similar situation? 

Shalsee: I love mistakes! When we learn we do something good, and it becomes expected of us so when we screw up, that's when we catch ourselves. We all have a bone pile of mistakes that we can learn from and use as a growth opportunity. You have to be honest with yourself on what you did wrong, what you can do better and there's always what can we do better.

Megan: My take is that it is a muscle we need to grow and learn from our mistakes. In 2020, we brought it into a core value of our business, which is basically celebrate the ‘F-UP’. We need to be kind and show compassion to ourselves. We only learn by making mistakes, and that should be celebrated and encouraged in many ways. Welcome the mistake.

"We all have a bone pile of mistakes that we can learn from and use as a growth opportunity. You have to be honest with yourself on what you did wrong, what you can do better and there's always something we can we do better."

Shalsee Vigeant

DVM, CEO, Animal Emergency Centre, Auckland

Which rituals can we implement for dealing with difficult clients and euthanasia?

Shalsee: Euthanasia is a big deal. I don't think it's easy for a single person in our profession. It's a struggle, it's a fight and if we're not crying in the room right then, we’re going to cry about it later. They hurt, but they are sometimes one of the best things we can do for the patient, and an emergency medicine it's something we do on a daily basis.

Having rituals and processes around your euthanasia helps everyone in your clinic understand that while it’s not easy, it’s something we have to take seriously. We don't take this a traumatic event the way human health professionals do, but we should. I've worked at clinics, where they have a room set up specifically for euthanasia. We also have clinics that put up a candle are assigned so that everyone else is aware.

Megan: What mindfulness-based stress reduction has taught me and my team members is to acknowledge that we will have sad thoughts but we need to learn how to respond. We need to check our body signals and go back to core and just say 'well you know what I need.' For myself, it’s time out in nature or a walk on the beach with my dog, Dudley. Those are the things that help you address your emotions instead of putting it in a box

How do we combat compassion fatigue?

Megan: It comes back down to one’s self and building our own muscles for compassion fatigue. Our frontal lobe isn't built for having self-compassion and if we can exercise this, the job gets easier. If you want a long term veterinary career, you need to be practicing mindfulness on a daily basis or you will get burnt out.

Our expectations of ourselves and our perceived expectations of employers may not match so voice your needs. You’ll realise that it’s OK to say no to that extra shift, it is OK if you're sick not to come in, and it’s OK to cancel clients.

How do we get clients to understand the damage they can cause with their words and actions?

Shalsee: I don't think it's just the veterinary professional’s role to educate our clients, I think it is the entire industry’s role. This is where our industry leaders, vet councils and our vet associations should be supporting us by educating the non-veterinary industry. The public do not understand what we do on a daily basis and even pet owners do not get it. So unless we're teaching them, they’ll remain in the dark. It’s hard for us to be honest and call clients out, but we have to, as it's a big issue for our profession.

What are some staff incentives that don’t cost?

Megan: Staff incentives always cost, whether that is energy, quality time or money. My tips would be to learn about your team. For my team, they like being together and they like having fun so I give them incentives that allow that. The other thing is to ask what your industry government organisations can do to help your staff's wellbeing. There is no harm in asking, and I often get the support I need.

How to help nurses with job satisfaction, particularly when there is little room for progression with a company?

Shalsee: I think this is a major problem with our profession. People are willing to stay in this profession for a lifetime, and to encourage this, you need to give room for them to grow. People think that if you’re a nurse or receptionist, you can't grow unless you do practice management which is not true. We could provide more team leader opportunities or tasks based on an individual’s strengths and capabilities. For example, we could look at getting a member who’s great at client communication to take bigger responsibility in this area. It can be hard for an owner or practice manager to let go of some of that control, but when we do, we give staff a chance to step up. If we don't provide places for our staff to grow, they're not going to stay.

Megan: There’s also self-care, self compassion, and self-responsibility to step up and tell your manager if there is something you want and need to grow into the amazing veterinary professional you are.

"If you want to grow, you need to step up and tell your manager you are willing. It's up to you to flourish into the amazing veterinary professional you want to be."

Megan Alderson

Veterinarian & Practice Owner of The Strand Veterinarian, Auckland, The Strand Vet, Auckland

What if I asked for help, even if it's toward areas you're overwhelmed with at home, and no one comes to help, then what?

Shalsee: I think that every human on the planet needs therapy, to some extent. Don't look forward inside your house or inside your work. Mentors, coaches, counsellors should be part of our everyday lives. Get help because it doesn't matter if it's personal or professional. Almost every human health Medical Association is implementing these they have peer review sessions that are required after trauma or a traumatic event. Most veterinary councils and associations across the globe are starting to get on board with these things.

Do you have any specific tips for the ADHD brains in the profession?

Shalsee: I myself am extremely ADHD but I have found an area of veterinary medicine that works for me. Being in Emergency with the constant multitasking is easy for us who have ADHD or ADD. I need a lot going on to help you focus and so emergency works very well for me. So if you aren't in Emergency, you could look into that. The other thing is so when I sit down to do my medical records, I put in loud earphones to get it done, to keep distractions out as it’s hard to keep my focus. Also doing one thing at a time is extremely important, finish the first task before you move on or write a list.

Shalsee, when you noticed productivity dropping off from staff who haven’t taken annual leave, what prompted you to correlate productivity and annual leave together?

Shalsee: I found out that you could track revenue per salesperson on ezyVet. I started to notice that staff who built up annual leave weren’t doing as well as the ones who used it up. Normally this measurement is used to track if all your vets are providing the same level of care, but I started to use it from a productivity perspective too. As a manager, I’m continuously seeing who has leave built up and encouraging days off which would produce better results (revenue-wise) for my hospital.

How can a seasoned vet help create the environment for a brand new colleague a better self care way of approaching so that stereotype of mentally working yourself into the ground is not perpetuated?

Megan: You have to practice what you preach, which is what I’m doing now by establishing boundaries, this includes tech boundaries as well.

Shalsee: I love working with new students and graduates because they are so passionate about what we do, so you need to take the lead by showing that you’re taking a break, that you’re not working yourself into the ground.

Megan: It’s also creating space within our work day. We decided as a team that having dedicated ‘notes’ or ‘think’ space throughout the day was much better than stacking our day back to back. This is programmed in our ezyVet dashboard so that we can block out time for follow ups etc. I think the time-to-care model has changed from a wellbeing perspective, from how it was always done, to being in a wonderful workplace where you love your career and have the time to do it as well.

Jun 02, 2021