Emotional agility in the veterinary profession

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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The pandemic took its toll, so too the bushfires, the mouse plague, and the drought. So, what part does emotional agility play in a practice’s ability to weather such storms? By Tracey Porter

Managing a veterinary clinic is stressful at the best of times. But throw in a series of major weather events, a vermin infestation, a global health pandemic, extreme staff shortages and an increase in client demand and what you’re left with is a volatile powder keg overdue for explosion.

Challenging is one word for it but seemingly bloody impossible is probably a far more accurate epithet. Somehow though, the work still gets done. 

So why, despite facing similar upheavals, do some veterinary leaders cope better than others?

Lincoln Institute director Paul Ainsworth, who regularly holds mentoring sessions helping veterinary leaders to process trauma, likens such trials to rapids in a river. He says how well veterinary practices fare comes down to their ability to anticipate the waters ahead.

“The rapids don’t get any calmer; you just learn to enjoy the ride more as your boat and crew becomes more effective.”

Dr Sarah Goldsmid, a superintendent and small animal surgical specialist at the Animal Referral Hospital, admits to having been tested by recent events.

With the hospital located in an LGA of concern, Dr Goldsmid and her team were on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Fronting up to work each day with the threat of her team members getting infected hanging over her, she watched as all the hospital’s ventilators were commandeered to deal with a potential wave of human ICU patients. 

Forced to adapt to contactless consultations, the hospital was made to divide its daytime specialist and emergency staff into two separate teams that didn’t overlap. This meant each team worked with limited staff in a set 12-hour period and then had to exit the building from a different door to those arriving just prior, doing a handover to the next team over the phone.

The 35-year veterinary veteran says communication with owners also became a lot harder, leading to an increase in complaints.

For me personally, when I’m really stressed, I tend to not be able to sleep or if I get to sleep, it’s a very broken sleep, waking up constantly throughout the night or dreaming about scenarios occurring at work. Along with that, I tend to overthink situations before they have even occurred.

Jessica Donohoe, practice manager, Greencross Vets Port Macquarie

“Dealing with difficult clients is one of my biggest stressors… I hate conflict. If I am anxious about a situation, or a particular case, it often keeps me up at night.”

Sleep loss is also the way stress manifests itself for Greencross Vets Port Macquarie practice manager Jessica Donohoe. In recent months Donohoe has had her resilience challenged after her clinic was directly impacted by drought, bushfires, floods, the mouse plague and the pandemic.

She says it can be very anxiety-provoking when you have a life in your hands, while also trying to support a team through the various challenges life has presented.

“For me personally, when I’m really stressed, I tend to not be able to sleep or if I get to sleep, it’s a very broken sleep, waking up constantly throughout the night or dreaming about scenarios occurring at work. Along with that, I tend to overthink situations before they have even occurred.”

Greencross Vets NSW & ACT regional clinical director Dr Adam Sternberg has also witnessed his share of stressful situations, having seen members of his team lose property during the fires, watched as clinics were cut off by rising flood waters, and seen staff struggle as they worked long hours in restrictive PPE during the pandemic.

He says over the years he has developed self-awareness and protection mechanisms that allow him to identify stress and anxiety triggers early before they progress.

“This has not been easy and has taken a lot of work,” he says.

“At times I was filling the glasses of other people and not leaving any for myself. In the short term this was okay, but in the long term it was detrimental, and I realise the importance of taking care of myself which has helped me better lead a team. I now realise you can have both glasses filled with a great outcome; you just have to manage it well.”

All say they rely on strong external support systems, outside interests such as exercise, and open and honest relationships with their peers for helping keep them emotionally intact during demanding periods.

For Dr Goldsmid, it may be as simple as making a point of keeping all the ‘thank you’ cards she receives as a physical reminder that the work she does is appreciated.

While it doesn’t always work, Donohoe aims to not take work home with her to ensure once in her personal space she can switch off from her professional obligations.

Building up a supportive, respectful, caring and sensitive team comes from the top—if you treat your staff well, they will be lifelong supporters and pass on the same to new staff.

Dr Sarah Goldsmid, Animal Referral Hospital

“While I am at work, I make a list of my outstanding tasks and give myself a reasonable time frame to complete them. This helps me to feel more organised and helps decrease the feeling of being overwhelmed or stressed.”

All say it’s important that veterinary leaders don’t always hide their emotional struggles from staff.

Of course, this is much easier when, like Dr Goldsmid, you have staff who have worked alongside you for 20 years.

“Building up a supportive, respectful, caring and sensitive team comes from the top—if you treat your staff well, they will be lifelong supporters and pass on the same to new staff,” she says.

Donohue too has no issue with sharing vulnerabilities in front of other team members. 

“It’s part of being human. I don’t see leadership as having no emotional challenges. I believe leadership is being able to rise above challenges and motivating your team to do the same. Perhaps they can listen to my story and take something from it whether it be advice, outcomes or just emotional support in the sense of knowing they are not alone.”

While no-one wants to listen to their boss constantly complaining about how they’re not coping, showing some vulnerability is also empowering for more junior team members, Paul Ainsworth says.

“If you want to normalise reaching out for help when you need it, you need to display these same qualities. If you want to make it about always being the stoic one, that may work for you, but you’ll be setting up the rest of your team for failure.”

Instead, by far the most important thing a veterinary leader can do in attempting to navigate such difficult scenarios is to focus on themselves first, he says.

“Be gentle on yourself and others—but start with yourself. You’re coming out of one of the most intense, sustained periods the industry has ever faced. Recognise that we don’t turn up for work ‘match fit’ when it comes to resilience. Acknowledge that resilience is a team sport—it’s the conversations between people that are validating and that enable you to get back up when you fall over.”

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