If you want to provide the best care for your veterinary patients, first you must care for yourself.
"Another walk-in? Are you serious? What's going on around here? We're already an hour behind and it's only two o'clock! Why can't you get anything right?" Dr. Calore flung open the exam room door in a huff. The doctor had been like this all week—or was it all month?
Five minutes later Dr. Calore stormed out of the room with a tiny pooch tucked in her arms. She gave the terrified terrier to her assistant and barked, "Do you think you can do something besides stand there? That dog needs blood tests and abdominal x-rays. Well, what are you waiting for? Go already!"
Sadly, this scene is repeated in countless veterinary clinics each day. In these lean economic times, veterinarians are time-pressed to do more with a smaller staff and for less money. Pet owners are harping about the rising cost of veterinary care and often end up postponing visits, resulting in pets with critical conditions and poorer prognoses. Veterinary staff members are putting in longer hours just to make the same pay they earned in 2007. All of these ingredients combined create a perfect recipe for disaster.
Luckily, there's a simple solution to help mitigate stress and improve your relationship with employees: exercise. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Business Psychology, working out diminishes workplace stress. In fact, the researchers report, bosses who consistently engaged in moderate exercise were rated as better supervisors by their employees. Surveyed workers reported higher job satisfaction, less workplace stress, and less abusive supervision when their employer exercised as little as one or two days a week.
Yes, you read that right: These bosses weren't training for an Ironman triathlon; they were working out for 30 to 60 minutes a couple of times a week. The type of exercise didn't matter, either—lifting weights, running, and yoga all boosted morale.
A similar 2005 study of schoolteachers found that when teachers experienced high levels of stress, they were more likely to engage in negative coping behaviors such as uncontrolled aggression, refusing to take responsibility for mistakes, and avoidance of others. Talk about a toxic teacher. However, these bad apples turned golden with a little bit of exercise. When teachers enrolled in fitness programs, the negative effects of stress were lessened.
In both studies participants who exercised didn't perceive that they were less stressed. The difference was how they coped with the craziness. Working out seemed to zap their tendency to lash out at subordinates. Regular exercise may also have helped optimize participants' brain chemistry and allowed them to recover from stressful situations more fully and more quickly. Refreshed and reenergized individuals typically get along better with others and are better leaders. This "buffer effect" of exercise helps create a better boss.
In my own life, I've found these findings to be spot-on. About 15 years ago I transformed my life by overhauling my diet and exercise. Before my wife and I decided to fix our lives, we had short fuses, little romance, and conversations that covered one topic—our practice. Within a year of getting seriously sweaty and ditching the junk food, our lives completely changed for the better. We didn't make radical changes—we simply ate better, jogged a few times a week, and talked less about work—but we dramatically improved our lives. I began to notice that everyone around me seemed happier. I was becoming more patient with my staff and clients, a better teacher and leader, and more focused on my goals. I'm telling you firsthand: This stuff works.
I know that in this economy veterinary practices need all the positive energy they can get. In fact, studies prove it. In the Benchmarks 2010 study of Well-Managed Practices by Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates and Veterinary Economics, 32 percent of staff members reported experiencing burnout and 48 percent revealed a lack of respect from coworkers as a cause of job dissatisfaction. Veterinarians didn't fare any better, with 46 percent of owners and 37 percent of associate doctors admitting that burnout was a problem. Problems with colleagues affected 31 percent of owners and 35 percent of associates.
The common cause behind these findings could very well be stress. Veterinarians can feel powerless against their appointment schedules, lack of highly trained staff, economic pressures, and client complaints. A 2010 Journal of Vocational Behavior study found that longer hours and ongoing time pressure ("We're always behind schedule!") make it difficult for supervisors to detach psychologically from their jobs, which negatively impacts mood and behavior. Anyone who's worked in a fast-paced veterinary clinic can relate to these findings. Stress affects the entire team.
Most of us have held a job in which the mood of the day was determined the moment the manager entered the office. Boss comes in with a smile; it's going to be a good day. Boss comes in with a frown; duck and cover. Bosses hold considerable control over the emotion of the business. To put it simply, when the boss gets stressed and snaps at everyone, pretty soon the place is a stew of suffering. Both good and bad moods are contagious.
The psychological term for ridiculing, putting down, and otherwise belittling subordinates is "abusive supervision." Turns out it's a pretty serious problem in our country. A December 2011 report from Penn State's Smeal College of Business estimates that 10 percent to 16 percent of American workers experience abusive supervision at an annual cost to businesses of $23.8 billion. A similar study from Baylor, published in November 2011, reports the following behaviors from supervisors, according to survey respondents:
> telling subordinates that their thoughts or feelings are stupid
> expressing anger toward subordinates when the supervisor is upset for another reason
> insulting subordinates in front of other people
> telling subordinates that they're incompetent.
According to these studies, treating employees badly results in poor client service and patient care, loss of revenue and productivity, increased absenteeism and illness, and increased healthcare costs.
Not convinced yet that a bad mood can be deadly? A January 2012 Journal of Nursing Administration study found 55 percent of nurses to be obese and suffering from chronic stress. Many blamed work schedules and supervisors for their unhealthy lifestyles. And these are employees in charge of looking after our health! Regardless of the reasons, supervisors owe it to their employees to be considerate, responsible, and caring and to provide a healthy work environment.
If you want to provide the best care for your patients, you must first care for the providers—yourself and your team. Too many stressed-out bosses and managers take out their frustrations on those most accessible—their coworkers and family. And this negative coping mechanism contributes to employee turnover, decreased job satisfaction, inefficiency, and lost productivity—not to mention broken homes and ruined lives. How you treat your staff affects how they treat your patients and clients. How you treat your family affects your life.
If you're feeling the weight of a thousand late appointments and complaining clients, take a walk, lift some weights, or stretch out in your favorite yoga pose. You don't have to be a fitness freak or health nut to improve the relationships you have with your loved ones and coworkers. Most of us know and understand that exercise is good for us. Now you know that exercise also benefits your employees. If you won't do it for yourself, at least do it for your staff. Exercise can make you a better boss—and a better person.
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and Personal Wellness Editor Dr. Ernie owns Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C.