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I helped an associate get the help she needed


An associate's anxiety was crippling our team. The team members were frustrated and complaining. Something needed to change at this dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year contestant's veterinary hospital. So they made a plan ...

My meeting with an associate whose anxiety was hurting our team was difficult, but here's how I did it. (Photo Getty Images)Our practice has a fabulous associate who also struggles with anxiety. Those who know her and work with her have always been aware of the anxiety. However, even with this condition to contend with, she has always remained a professional with clients, a high producer for the clinic, and a favorite for pet owners.

The problem, however, was with the team. This associate would often ask team members repetitive questions about cases (when she already knew answers, but was in doubt and would double check herself). In doing this, she would devalue her status as a doctor and her confidence level in front of team members. She would frequently consult with her associates to double-check her conclusions when she was feeling uneasy about something. The issues had been discussed numerous times in the past, but with no consistent improvement.

They came to me

When staff members finally came to me and told me how the associate's anxiety-driven behavior was making their jobs more difficult, I talked again with the practice owner about the situation. We discussed the fact that we needed a plan to help the associate deal with the anxiety to lessen the impact on the team, with specific goals established for the associate. Getting the practice owner on board with a specific plan that involved definite goals and a deadline was my first plan of action. The problem had been addressed in the past during annual evaluations; however I believe that the idea of a plan that had to end in noticeable and timely improvement or termination was a huge barrier in following through with a plan. So, while it had been discussed, a plan was never put in place to enforce a change. This time was different-the practice owner agreed it was time.


Compassionately talking about an associate or team member's anxiety

My meeting with an associate whose anxiety was hurting our team was difficult. Practice managers walk a thin line when it comes to discussing mental, emotional or personal issues that are creating problems in the workplace. It's crucial to always remember, always say and always act as if the person is not the problem-the behavior or actions are the problem. I had personal experience with anxiety (I have numerous family members, including two sons, who suffer with anxiety), but I kept the discussion centered on the facts.

We reassured her that we believe that she is a great doctor, that our clients and staff love her, and that our only intention was to help improve her actions so she doesn't alienate the team or wind up burned out like so many in the veterinary field do. Address touchy issues like this with great compassion, but as soon as possible. Left unaddressed, a problem like this can tear apart a team, create chaos in the clinic and hurt customer service.

1. Do some research about anxiety before addressing the issue, so you have a little understanding of why and how anxiety affects the person.

2. Focus on the actions and the effects of those actions on the other employees (or clients, if that's a problem). Do not focus on the person. The person suffering is not the "problem,"-the actions are the problem.

3. Be empathetic and an active listener. Give your employee time to explain how they're feeling and truly take the time to work through the problem.

4. Don't expect immediate change-that's not fair, realistic or reasonable. Someone trying to manage their anxiety on the job won't be perfect all the time and they'll backslide. It's called a process for a reason.

We made a plan

Next, we met with the associate and stated our concerns about the anxiety once again. This time, we clearly stated how her actions were negatively affecting the staff. We assured her that she was a great doctor and that we wanted to work with her to help correct the issue. We asked her to come back in a week with some ideas to alleviate some of her daily worry and fear.

When she returned, we agreed to a plan that included her seeking therapy (her idea), which we agreed to support by making time available for her appointments. We added some administrative time to her workday to combat stress (stress heightened her anxiety). We set up a meeting between her and the team leads of each department so they could discuss how the anxiety was affecting the other employees and what steps could be taken to change this. Finally, we planned to send her to classes specifically geared for stress and emotional management. The owner, the associate and I agreed to meet monthly to look at her progress.

We saw significant change

The goals changed each month. In the first month, she set up therapy appointments, meetings with the team leads and stress-reduction classes. In the next few months, we worked together on better ways to communicate, controlling questions she asks about cases when she already knows the answers, presenting herself as a confident doctor and giving her permission to check in with me if she's ever feeling uneasy about something.

In three months, we saw significant change. The staff was more comfortable around her, her communication improved, and we can all see she's feeling more confident and truly working to recognize her anxiety triggers and how to manage them. She has come a long way, improving all the time, and has expressed how grateful she was for the “push" to do it.

We all worked together as a team with the associate to make this happen. The team had presented the problem to me, I acknowledged their concerns, and we followed through on a plan of action. For the associate and for the team, this has helped demonstrate a team atmosphere here where people trust they're listened to and management will work to correct issues.

dvm360, Firstline and Vetted will be publishing personal stories, in-the-trenches advice and bright practice management ideas in the coming months-all from entrants in the dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year contest. The 10 finalists will be announced at CVC Kansas City in August, and the Practice Manager of the Year will be announced at CVC San Diego in December.

Stephanie Bishop is practice manager of Eastown Veterinary Clinic in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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