Staff management

The vast majority of calls to Vetlife Helpline concern employment issues so Vetlife asked some experienced practitioners and managers for their advice on creating an effective team with a high level of wellbeing.

1. Get the recruitment right

Time-strapped managers of veterinary practices sometimes make the mistake of recruiting the ‘best of a bad lot’ and hope it will work out. Attitude is key and asking the right situational behavioural questions at interview will enable a manager to assess whether the candidate is going to fit in well. Marcus Buckingham’s book First Break All The Rules gives excellent advice about selecting and retaining the right staff for a team.

If you don’t select the right candidate at interview it is unlikely that you will be able to rectify this just by providing training, even though a good candidate can be made excellent with the right training. However, it’s unlikely that a person is a poor performer across the board, so it’s probably just a question of that person not being the right fit in your organisation.

If your organisation is big enough and you have sufficient flexibility, you can raise their performance by moving them into a different role. Otherwise, helping them to find a new direction, rather than forcing them out or hoping that a square peg will eventually fit into a round hole, will empower them and keep their enthusiasm for a veterinary career alive.

2. Accept that management is a dynamic process and requires support from your team

A manager is often really effective with some of the team and less so with others. That’s why 360 degree appraisals and other feedback to the manager are so important. You can only be an effective manager with the support of your team and you need to know if, for example, your slowness at passing round paperwork is affecting their performance. Share information back to them too, particularly business information, and train them to understand what you are sharing.

3. Encourage assertiveness

Many practices have found it to be very worthwhile to send all new employees on an assertiveness course. Some managers might fear it will turn their staff into demon pay rise negotiators, but in fact when workers are able to state their needs clearly and calmly they are happier, more effective and easier to deal with. Assertiveness at Work by Ken & Kate Back is useful for all staff including inexperienced new team members and managers.

“Praise delivered at the right time makes a significant difference to performance. Don’t hold back… even if it feels as if you are being effusive, it is probably not perceived as such.”

4. Have an effective health and wellbeing policy

Callers to Vetlife Helpline who have suffered from stress and depression often comment on the difficulty of getting time off to seek help and suffer additional stress when forced to undertake contract negotiations at a time when they feel too unwell to continue working. A health and wellbeing policy which is clear about what happens if staff need to stop working and an agreed strategy for supporting those who are returning to work after sickness, can be an enormous aid to recovery.

It’s not a manager’s job to know everything about the lives of the staff, but by discussing work-related issues as soon as any problems surface, it will sometimes become evident that an employee’s performance is being affected by events in their personal lives. Here the manager can help by being flexible about time off, if appropriate, but they need to be careful not to create a culture where outside issues are used to legitimise poor performance. If they can help the person to have a workplace which provides an enjoyable and fulfilling respite from whatever is happening at home and can help them to carry on working and turning in a satisfactory performance, the staff member is probably more than capable of dealing with their personal problems themselves.

5. Play to employees’ strengths

As Marcus Buckingham advises in First Break All The Rules, sometimes it’s just not worth trying to fix weaknesses and it’s better to just get someone else to do it if a staff member is not good at something. Wellbeing research has shown that the most satisfied people are those who identify their strengths and follow them.

Many new veterinary graduates find it difficult to accept that they are allowed to have a weakness and feel under tremendous pressure to do everything perfectly. Sometimes a new graduate in practice will feel a complete failure when a procedure doesn’t go as well as they had expected it to and this can spiral into catastrophic thinking about the end of their career. Managers need to instil awareness in vets that they can’t be good at everything and that it is OK to have an area of weakness. Although many new graduates appear on the surface to be very confident, managers need to make an effort to know the person and be aware of how they really feel about their performance at work.

6. Get your attitude right and give yourself time

Management is a job in itself and not just an “add on” to be fitted in the 10 minutes before the next examination or on a Sunday evening. A manager needs time to do the job and time to give to other people. If you try to do everything you have done before and then cram all the job appraisals, feedback and leadership on top of that, you are setting yourself up for failure.

“When you are up to your neck fighting crocodiles, it’s hard to remember you came to drain the swamp in the first place.”
A CEO of the World Health Organization

Managers don’t necessarily need to be the highest revenue earners in the practice or the most senior clinicians and having the right attitude and time to listen is often more important than management knowledge. Veterinary practitioners regularly work in new locations isolated from friends and family, so having someone to turn to who is interested in how that person is settling in, or coping with the stresses of veterinary life, is vital.

New graduates are looking for fairness, understanding and respect.

“Staff are humans with feelings, concerns and worries both work based and personal. They aren’t machines to be barked at, pulled in every direction or deserted to muddle through.”

7. Try to remove obstacles to positivity

Factors such as organisational policies which cause dissatisfaction, uncompetitive salaries and uncomfortable or poorly equipped work environments, are roadblocks to maintaining high levels of motivation. The only way to find out what the barriers are is to ask the team.

8. Promote focus and direction within the team

Teams that fully understand the purpose of what they do and are clear what is expected of them are usually more engaged. The mission statement should mention the intention to make the workplace an enjoyable place to work where staff are treated with respect.

9. Set clear goals and give adequate praise

Praise delivered at the right time, after clear goals have been set and achieved, makes a significant difference to performance.

Don’t hold back on the praise. Even if it feels that you are being effusive it is probably not perceived as such. Research on managers across the health care professions found that while managers rate themselves as 4.4 out of 5 for giving staff praise, their staff rated the amount of praise they had been given as 1 out of 5.

In Kenneth Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager he warns against managers “catching people doing something wrong”. Don’t wait until someone makes a big mistake – be close enough to catch them when they start to drift off track. Discussing the problem immediately one to one and coupling the discussion with praise for what they get right, will normally be enough to correct their performance and be well received. Your responsibility as a manager is to help the practitioner grow and to keep the spark of enthusiasm that most vets start out with alive.

10. Use the profession’s support services

Vetlife Health Support provides free and confidential professional mental health support to anyone concerned about a staff member. The National Co-ordinator also provides post-suicide support to practices and family members.

Vetlife Helpline is also available 24/7 to offer support and both BVA and SPVS run schemes for recent graduates to help ease their transition into working life.