Take care of your body to take control of your life
Caffeine and sugar may get you through your day at the veterinary practice, but they won't get you to your happy place. Exercise your mind by exercising your body and your rights to healthy food.
If you and your team members are like many Americans, you haven't seen your wished-for weight on the scale in years. Your energy level is low because your job stress is high and you don't exercise enough. You rely on sugar and caffeine to get you through the day, but they never fully satisfy.
Plus, there's another important variable in making healthy lifestyle choices: the people who surround you. Not only are you what you eat, you're also who you hang out with. Science backs this up. Studies show that our friends and coworkers affect our diet, perceptions of weight, and lifestyle. Smokers tend to have friends and colleagues who smoke. Heavier people are more likely to be surrounded by people who make poor food choices and exercise little.
As a practice leader, what's your influence? If my team members see me grabbing a cookie or a soda as an afternoon pick-me-up, they're likely to follow suit. If I don't exercise, my staff won't see in me the benefits of making time for exercise. If I'm stressed out, speak crossly, or deal poorly with conflict, I create an environment where these actions are accepted. The practice personality and its employees' bodies are often a direct reflection of its owners and leaders.
I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves, our staff, and our patients to be in optimal health. You may think you're mentally sharp, but if you're not taking care of your body, you're not taking care of your mind. One of the biggest revelations to me working with people getting their lives back on track is how "alive" people report they feel as they begin a healthy lifestyle. These people weren't sick. They just weren't optimally living.
CLIMB OUT OF YOUR FOOD FUNK
Years ago I attended a management retreat with a presentation by a Coca-Cola executive. He said a key driver of Coke's global success was simple: accessibility. Coke's goal was for everyone on the planet to be within a short walk from its products. If a drink is accessible, he concluded, people will drink it.
The same principle applies to our workplace. What drinks and snacks are on hand? Where are they kept? Do you have a candy jar on your reception desk? I recently visited a clinic where the owner bragged that he "kept the candy flowing" to keep his staff happy. Seriously? Of course, that candy found its way to many posteriors.
If bowls, baskets, and vending machines at your clinic are filled with sugary, starchy snacks, you can bet your team members are eating them. Sure, they feel more energized when that sugar high hits—until they crash. Then they're cranky, irritable, and less mentally focused.
Get rid of that junk!
Action plan: Replace junk food with whole foods such as unsalted nuts, water, fruits, and vegetables.
> Bring in healthy "fast food" such as grapes, clementines, oranges, and bananas. Put these foods in easy-to-access locations.
> Expand your palate by trying new veggies—and encourage your team members to do the same.
> Ask sales reps who bring boxes of doughnuts and free pizza to switch to fruit baskets, vegetable platters, or healthy lunches.
> During the holidays, ask gift-giving clients to bring donations for animal shelters in lieu of candy.
It's easier than you think to break the barrage of bad foods. Once people make the connection between what they're eating every day and how they feel, the race to better health is on. You just have to set the pace.
DRINK TO YOUR HEALTH
Hydration is another critical element to staying healthy at work. Too many of us don't drink enough water. Eight to nine glasses a day can be a challenge if you're also drinking soda and coffee. Fix that!
Action plan: Drink water, not calories.
> Carry a water bottle and don't wait until you're thirsty to drink.
> Don't drink your calories. Avoid energy drinks, soft drinks, and fruit juices.
> Unplug your coffeemaker and keep a pot of green tea brewing in your lounge.
The most important element for life is oxygen followed by water. If you're breathing, you should be drinking. Make sure you're drinking good ole H2O.
EXERCISE WHILE YOU WORK
There's a persistent myth about working in a veterinary clinic. We think because we walk around a lot, pick up animals, and feel tired at the end of the day that we're active and exercising. Uh-uh.
A few years back, I decided to see just how much my team and I were moving during a day's work. Team members wore pedometers for one month, and we discovered that—regardless of job position—each of us walked about 6,000 steps, or three miles a day, during work. That's far shy of the recommended 10,000 steps per day. We could do better.
Action plan: Move and stretch to feel your very best.
> Encourage everyone to go for a short 15-minute walk during lunch. Sunshine and fresh air does a body good.
> Teach yourself—and your team—to stretch often. Start with this one: Take a deep breath as you raise your hands above your head. Slowly exhale as you lower them. Lift your right arm over your head and bend left at the waist. Now do the same with your left arm. Now bend at the waist toward your toes. Clasp your hands behind you and stretch your back. Now stand up straight and shrug your shoulders. Rotate your head in a slow circle as you focus on breathing slowly. This routine only takes 30 seconds or so, and it helps work out the kinks.
> Strengthen your core for better posture and less back pain. Feeling antsy? Squats activate big muscle groups and burn excess energy. All you need to do is stand upright, place your hands on your hips, and slowly lower yourself by bending your knees. Keep looking ahead, go as low as you can without becoming unstable, and slowly raise yourself. Do five to 10 repetitions two to four times a day. Your rear end will thank you, and you'll thank your stronger legs and back.
> Give the gift of a gym. At my practice we negotiated a group rate at our local gym and I offered to pay half the fee as long as a team member used the gym six hours per month.
There are endless ways to exercise while you work. The key is to encourage exercise—and demonstrate it—until it becomes automatic. When your team members see you stretching or squatting, it gives them permission to do the same. Go ahead—give me 20!
TAKE THE BOLDEST STEP
To really show my team that I was motivated by their personal well-being, I took the bold step of reducing our clinic hours. By closing a half-hour earlier, our team members could get home in time to prepare a healthy meal, exercise, or lessen stress with a little more personal time at the end of the day.
No other measure has improved team members' work lives more than leaving work on time. There are still days with emergencies when everyone stays late, but they're the exception. Four years later, we're producing more revenue than ever in fewer hours with a happier, healthier team.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Put broccoli in the staff lounge. Staple exercise moves to the bulletin board. Announce a discount on exercise equipment. As a practice leader, your good intentions are important. But if you don't live what you advise, chances are you won't inspire anyone.
If we are to fulfill our role as healers, we need to live lives that reflect our beliefs. I call this the "authenticity effect." People know when you're bluffing and when you really believe something. When you live a healthy lifestyle, everyone around you notices. You become "health-authentic."
As veterinary practice leaders and owners, we need to ensure that we demonstrate the actions we want to see from our team members. I'll also extend this to our patients. It's common to recommend twice-yearly checkups and blood tests for senior pets. But do you follow your own advice? Has your pet been in twice this year for an exam and blood tests? Have you visited your own physician for the same? If it's important enough for us to recommend to our patients and team members, it's important enough to do it for our pets and ourselves. Authenticity resonates with clients more strongly than any handout or discount.
Working in a veterinary clinic is tough. It's full of stress and strife, hard work and long hours. To combat those challenges, we need to care for ourselves. Take time today to critically examine your current lifestyle. Can you be better? You bet you can. Will it be easy? No. But once you embrace the journey and start feeling better, you'll never go back.
I've been there. I've lived those long, dark days where everything seemed out of control and I dreaded sunrise. But 12 years ago I made up my mind that living that way was no way to live. I made big changes with diet and exercise, I took big risks with new challenges (Ironman, anyone?), and I've never been happier. Healthy body, mind, and spirit: You can have them, too. Join me—and my team—in this health revolution.
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Ernie Ward owns Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., and is author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter—A Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010, HCI).