Leaders – this one’s on you, not them.
Imagine taking a healthy canary going into a coal mine, singing away as you make your way into the depths.
But, when it comes out no longer singing, full of soot and disease, can you imagine asking: “What’s wrong with this canary? Why doesn’t this canary look after itself? It must be a snowflake canary?” No, because the answer would be obvious: the toxic environment of the coal mine has made the bird sick.
Stress and burnout in the veterinary profession are at epidemic levels. A 2019 study commissioned by the BVA on job satisfaction1 came up with disturbing findings (Table 1).
|Table 1. BVA Job Satisfaction Survey 2019: responses||What does this mean?|
|37% of respondents are actively thinking about leaving||Disconnection (flight)|
|63% of respondents feel they are working too hard||Persistent struggle (fight)|
|21% feel they can’t cope with the demands of their job||Lack of mastery|
|48% describe themselves as “burnt out”||Disengagement|
|22% of vets regard their work as a “means to an end”||Lack of purpose or meaning|
|25% of the profession don’t find their work stimulating or interesting||Bored and unmotivated|
Worldwide, 615 million people suffer from depression and anxiety, which costs the global workforce an estimated £770 billion in lost productivity each year2. Passion-driven and caregiving roles such as vets, doctors and nurses are some of the most susceptible to burnout3, and the consequences can mean life or death; suicide rates among caregivers are dramatically higher than that of the public – 40% higher for men and 130% higher for women.
This is a real problem. And it can feel like an impossible task for leaders to tackle – perhaps because the whole concept seems too ambiguous or overwhelming. When experts still struggle to define burnout, how can we ask our leaders to prevent it?
With “burnout” officially recognised by the World Health Organization4, responsibility for managing it has shifted from the individual to the organisation. Leaders take note: it’s now on you to build a well-being strategy for your business.
Traditionally, categorising burnout as a disease was an attempt to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with organisations.
A survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup5 found the top five reasons for burnout are:
This list clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not lie with the individual and that they can be averted only if leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.
I highly recommend self-help, self-improvement and building resilience, which can provide people with the rocket fuel they need to succeed. But these skills are not the cure for exhaustion, nor are they the vaccine.
So, what can leaders do? First, as leaders, ask yourself some serious questions. What is making my team (and me) so unhealthy? Why does our work environment lack the conditions for us to flourish? How can I make it safe for them to work here every day? We have to ask our people what would make work better for them.
More generally, we need to understand what causes people to feel intrinsically and extrinsically motivated in our practices, and build a well-being strategy that includes:
To foster and maintain a healthy workplace, your business must encourage and support collaboration, engagement, growth mindsets and empowerment; allowing your team to actively contribute to the success of your business – the drivers of their intrinsic motivation.
A continuous improvement system, focusing on the processes rather than the people, achieves this through providing a robust platform for the team to:
Frederick Herzberg is known for his dual-factor, motivation-hygiene theory6. Herzberg found that motivation and hygiene are not on a scale with one increasing as the other diminishes, but are actually independent of each other; this means that leaders need to identify and treat both, and separately.
Motivation encompasses purpose, mastery and autonomy7, including factors such as challenging work; recognition for one’s achievements, responsibility, the opportunity to provide something meaningful, involvement in decision making, progression and advancement, and a sense of inclusion in the company’s overall vision (Figure 1).
Extrinsic hygiene factors (satisfaction) are the “hidden givens” of a good workplace, which includes remuneration, work conditions, company policy and administration, supervision structure, working relationships, status and security.
Often, employees don’t recognise when an organisation has good hygiene. Poor hygiene, however, can cause significant disruption. It’s the tiny, incremental, irritating, and painful stuff at work that can wear us down. Having a coffee break one day and then no more coffee the next.
People feel it. In addition, the profession suffers the “micro-traumas” of everyday veterinary life: challenging clients, compassion fatigue, difficult cases and euthanasia.
Get these extrinsic hygiene factors right, and your business has firm foundations from which you and your team can grow.
The University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, demonstrated that the brain needs to work as much as 100 times harder when an individual is using skills outside his or her area of natural preference. More oxygen and glucose is demanded because the brain is adapting its preferred way of working. The likely consequence is stress, fatigue, and reduced performance.
Which is why flow is so important; it’s the path of least resistance and ensures we are challenged enough to prevent boredom, but not so much that it causes stress. It allows us to do this while using our natural skill sets and maximising our full potential.
Personal profiles can identify people’s natural thinking styles and strengths, enabling practice owners to understand their teams and assign the right tasks to the right person. Team profiles help everyone to understand themselves and each other, resulting in improved interactions, stronger problem solving, greater inter-department empathy and collaboration, and, ultimately, a team at its strongest.
Practices and organisations have a chance, right now, to fix this. The good news is by being aware that these areas need addressing, you’re already halfway to building your well-being strategy.
Completion requires organisational hygiene, better information, asking more timely and relevant questions, smarter (more micro) budgeting, and ensuring wellness offerings are available to your teams.
Keep the yoga, the resilience training, and the mindfulness classes – they are all terrific tools for optimising mental health and managing stress. But, when it comes to employee burnout and well-being, remember – it’s on you leaders, not them.