Too much stress, not enough staff. Fact or fiction?

Bashore Halow, CVPM, LVT

A veterinary professional for 20 years, Bash Halow managed a practice in New York City before advancing to a regional manager position for Healthy Pet Corporation (later VCA) and finally a position as administrator for a large 15-doctor practice in Princeton, New Jersey. Now owner of Halow Consulting, he has helped dozens of veterinary hospitals understand how to build stronger teams and responsibly and ethically grow their businesses. Halow is a frequent editorial contributor and speaker, and he founded the New Jersey Veterinary Hospital Management Association and the Big Apple Veterinary Management Association in New York City.

A recent JAVMA paper called "Are We a Veterinary Workforce in Crisis?"1 raised ire with some hospital leaders. On its surface, the commentary implied that the snarl of business rushing through our doors in 2020 and early 2021 was in some part imagined; that in fact pet adoption rates weren't as high as the shrill media headlines seemed to indicate, nor were we that much busier than we had been in previous years.

In fairness, the article was a sober and thorough look at what may have been happening to our businesses underneath the huffs, puffs and mopped brows of burnt-out veterinary technicians and teams as a whole. But in the end, the clarity may have been moot. Veterinary professionals have been throwing their hands up against the onslaught of packed appointment schedules long enough that upstretched arms have turned into fists of protest. Regardless, if the data show otherwise, veterinary technicians and team members are loudly voicing exasperation over what they fervently believe is a mountain of caseload.

To illustrate, I worked with VitusVet on a national survey of veterinary professionals that was published in May 2021.2 Though it didn't have the reach of the JAVMA study, it still showed that a lion's share of our colleagues are buckling:

  • 35 percent of veterinary technicians and doctors plan on leaving their jobs in three to five years
  • Those reporting some to a lot of stress jumped by 30 percent
  • Nearly half of team members reported high caseload, rude clients and staff shortages as the main sources of stress

"[Veterinary] technicians and team members are loudly voicing exasperation over what they fervently believe is a mountain of caseload."

What's more, the usual solutions that practice leaders lean on to tamp out team members' frustrations didn't seem to be working. Pay raises, paid lunches and same-day surcharges for walk-ins all appeared to fall short of ameliorating worker dissatisfaction. So, how do we go about fixing a problem that some data suggest isn't real and address team members who seem to be rebuffing all our efforts to make things better?

It's not just a veterinary thing

For practice managers trying to battle volatile employee anxiousness, it's important to remember that these aren't our typical days at the rodeo. The American Psychological Association calls what we are experiencing A National Mental Health Crisis. There's likely no yoga mat, meditation tape or cup of chamomile tea that will give any of us the distance we need from pervasive stressors. Ongoing shutdowns, risk of infection, national polarization, a murky economic forecast and seismic global geopolitical changes are providing plenty of fodder for 3 a.m. sleeplessness.

To combat this critical threat to our profession, managers need to acknowledge the feelings of team members; guide healthy internal communication on how we interact with one another and with clients; and lean on efficiency tools to optimize employee interaction and effort.

Acknowledge effort

It's been a bumpy ride for all of us, but when you pull back and look at the bigger picture, one thing should be clear: the majority of our veterinary technicians and team members have been working very hard and at considerable risk to help clients they don't know and businesses they don't own. If practice managers haven't felt the need to pull team members aside on an individual basis and sincerely thank them for their contributions, those managers should be checked for myopia. Sincere praise from employers (and coworkers) usually ranks number one as the most impactful source of inspiration and workplace satisfaction for employees.

"... the majority of our veterinary technicians and team members have been working very hard and at considerable risk to help clients they don't know and businesses they don't own."

Remind that perseverance can lead to resilience

Everyone has heard the expression "That which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger." I would like to add a qualifier: Provided you choose a healthy way out of your predicament. A great illustration of this is the trope of alcohol as some kind of balm for a bad day. Not true. Ditto for weed. Substance abuse and drinking aren't answers, they're anesthesia. If you're going to navigate your way successfully through adversity, you have to be conscious during the trip.

Practice healthy communication

Too often, overworked, stressed teams skip healthy interpersonal behavior, telling themselves they're too busy for niceties. That's a mistake that can inflict all kinds of direct and collateral damage on teams. With this in mind, great managers help teams understand the value of the following:

  • Being civil
    Please and thank you, good morning and take care: Are these just platitudes? They can be, but if offered with real intention, verbal and nonverbal cues of civility telegraph our recognition of others and the value we see in them. A lesson in manners might seem like grade school stuff, but civility is actually a social glue that keeps people — including veterinary teams — productive and peaceful.
  • Staying together
    Humans are hardwired for communal living and working. Even during the height of the COVID epidemic, leaders of successful practices found a way for team members to regularly meet (albeit through Zoom or large spaces where distancing wasn't an issue) to solve problems and to devise better ways for team members to succeed every day.
  • Knocking off the venting
    Want to kick-start a spirited discussion with your team? Ask them their thoughts on the value of venting. A few of your hottest heads will defend it as the only way to blow off steam, but watch how other members of your staff soon add qualifiers like, "It can have its downside," and, "It starts to make the place feel negative." Remember that venting is a backhanded way of looking for validation. When team members recognize what they really need, they can stop shouting and choose camaraderie over commotion.
  • Taking charge of client communication
    Navigating the ongoing pandemic will continue to require purpose, planning and focus. Practice teams that grovel over clients' every wish get quickly derailed. The best teams — and veterinary technicians — don't take things lying down. They stand up and tell clients what is best for them, the pet and the practice. When practice teams acknowledge their worth and behave as though they are worthy, they feel worthy and clients are more likely to listen to direction.
  • Reducing stress
    Successful teams recognize that it's easier to live and communicate in an age of stress if there is less stress. To that end, go back and look at antiquated workflow patterns that no longer make sense in today's context. By acknowledging that the business itself has changed, teams are able to identify bottlenecks to great care and individuals' success, then make things right.

"The best teams — and veterinary technicians — don't take things lying down. They stand up and tell clients what is best for them, the pet and the practice."

Keep an eye on efficiency

I predict the whole labor market in America is going to contract. We are seeing a lot of "help wanted" signs right now, but ultimately, the world has learned to do more with less. Many pre-pandemic jobs won't return, especially at $15 an hour — and that includes veterinary technicians.

These jobs won't come back because consumers are finally cool with taking on tasks for themselves. Personally, I used to push back against self-service. I didn't want to deal with the damn chat window or the email; I wanted to talk to a human. But after 18 months of scanning a QR code to read a menu, I'm not only ordering food on my phone, I'm texting the waiter to remember to bring a side of mayo. Folks, self-service is in. They put Kool Aid on the bill of fare and we're scanning it, having the internet deliver it, and lapping it up. It's convenient, it's nearly instantaneous, and it is here to stay.

Veterinary client communication technology has come of age. We now have a chance to eliminate boring admin work and focus our team more exclusively on client and patient interactions. This is the kind of employment that's worth higher salaries and worthy of a higher caliber of employee. It's effort that has a direct immediate impact to competitiveness, higher sales and employee engagement.

  1. Salois M, Golab G. "Are we in a veterinary workforce crisis?" JAVMA News. Sept. 15, 2021.
  2. VitusVet, Halow B. "Stress in a pandemic: How veterinary practices are coping with a new normal." VitusVet Blog. May 26, 2021.
1 comment
- Lisa Evans, V.M.D., CCRT

Amen Bash Halow!! This is the most resilient and awesome profession in the world. Millennials are changing the way we communicate, whether we like it or not. We need to embrace and teach IT efficiencies, auto text messaging that includes the CPR,DNR, estimate and consent all in one, Weave, allow clients to book their own appointments on line. I used to think that was insanity, but it’s time to embrace it and fully utilize and fully compensate our work horses – the vet techs, nurses, and CSRs, many are easily worth $30-$40/hr. This will keep them from going into human nursing for the $$$.
When explained to clients that you had to raise the prices to take care of the staff, they get it. It’s a mathematical No Brainer. We are only as good and sound as our staff .

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