Why toxic teams plague the veterinary profession

January 6, 2017
Hannah Wagle, Associate Content Specialist

According to expert Shawn McVey, veterinary medicine brews more toxicity than other professions. Here are his thoughts on why that is.

Photo: Shutterstock/Tithi LuadthongToxicity within work environments. It's more common than you'd think, appearing in just about every profession in the world. However, experts like Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, a frequent lecturer on veterinary workplace culture and CEO of Pathway (Veterinary Management), an Austin based company that owns and manages over 40 hospitals, believes there's more potential for toxicity in veterinary medicine than other fields-even other healthcare professions. He recently shared his thoughts with dvm360 on the stressors unique to veterinary medicine that can generate toxic behaviors among veterinarians and team members.

A matter of life and death

McVey's first conclusion as to why veterinary medicine produces toxicity deals has to do with one of the hardest aspects of the job emotionally: death and dying. Veterinary teams deal with euthanasia of pets every day, along with death from illness and injury. “We're the only healthcare profession that charges outright for what we do that is life-and-death-based,” McVey explains. “If a job is not life-and-death, it's not as emotional.”

Your client: Jekyll and Hyde

“People come to us with beer budgets and champagne expectations for their animals,” McVey says. “The customer in veterinary practice has a tendency to be Jekyll or Hyde: They love their pets, but they can be nasty about having to pay for it.”

Because the human-animal bond is so strongly encouraged within the veterinary profession, the consumer is led to believe that a pet is a viable reason to inappropriately express emotion. And due to this, they are able to become hijacked by the veterinary consumer culture. According to McVey, it's an endless cycle that produces toxicity.

Money, money, money

Pet owners' relationship with their veterinarian is similar to what parents have with their pediatrician. “The only difference,” McVey says, “is that most hospitals would take in a child and give it care, even if you didn't have money.” The fact that veterinarians live primarily within a for-profit environment ensures that this isn't always the case. This ends up splitting cracks in the floodgates, allowing toxicity to seep in.

Did we mention money?

Another stressor that can lead to toxicity is that veterinary compensation is low while student debt levels are high. “We have people facing economic pressures that don't happen with the vast majority of people in the field of human medicine, who often make six-figure salaries,” McVey says.

Introversion and toxicity

“Finally,” McVey says, “many MDs have a component of extroversion.” They went into human medicine because they thrive on being with people. On the opposite side of the spectrum, most veterinarians tend to be introverted and analytical. Of course, this doesn't automatically lead to toxicity, but it can be a factor. “Introverts often lack the capacity to manage teams,” McVey explains, “because they've never been told that they had to. So they don't know how.” In the absence of strong team leadership, a toxic environment can develop.

Emotional intelligence: Toxicity's solution

McVey's solution to the toxicity present in so many veterinary practices is emotional intelligence training, a service he provides as an industry consultant. When he tests veterinary professionals using Talentsmart's EQ quiz, the mean score is 57 out of 100. (He's tested about 1,500 veterinary professionals.) The mean score for other service industry professionals (defined as someone who has been in their profession for more than five years and/or has a degree in that field), the mean is 70 to 71 out of 100.

Fortunately, emotional intelligence is easier to come by than many may think. McVey's employees and team members often improve dramatically after learning emotional intelligence skills. “Many veterinary professionals go from scoring in the 50s to scoring in the 70s in as little as a year,” he says. “You're here as a professional to understand how and when to pay attention to your feelings and your mind. You alone are responsible for that connection.”