Taking responsibility for well-being in the workplace

Employee input, sense of belonging key to creating positive change
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Dr. Brandt
Jen Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of member well-being and diversity initiatives, says during her keynote address that veterinary workplaces can do more to destigmatize help-seeking, to give employees a sense of belonging, and to develop communication between leadership and employees, among other things.

The veterinary profession, which studies show has rates of burnout and suicide higher than those of the general U.S. population (see story), has taken steps to address its gap in well-being in recent years but still has work to do. Jen Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of member well-being and diversity initiatives, said well-being is a holistic process, not an event.

Wellness and well-being do not mean the same thing, she said. Well-being in the workplace means personal happiness—feeling good, feeling healthy, and working safely and productively. The emphasis is on a life well-lived, looking at the whole person. Wellness is focused on physical health and illness prevention, sometimes in an effort to reduce costs.

Dr. Brandt said a culture of well-being helps attract top talent, brings out the best in employees, and increases employee retention, engagement, and satisfaction. She quoted Dr. Nick Stace, chief executive of The Prince's Trust, a U.K. organization that helps struggling young people, and former CEO of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons: "We believe we have a moral obligation to make the workplace great for people who spend much of their lives at work."

Dr. Brandt gave the keynote address for the 2018 Veterinary Wellbeing Summit, April 15-17 in Schaumburg, Illinois. The AVMA teamed up with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and Zoetis to host the fifth summit focused on wellness and well-being in the veterinary profession. About 175 attended the event, including 25 veterinary mental health professionals.

The summit covered a range of topics including the link between culture and well-being, the importance of boundary setting, addressing perfectionism, and the business case for well-being. Many of the sessions offered a look at real-life scenarios, such as successful initiatives for parents in various work environments (see story), personal obstacles and success stories, and lessons learned.

In addition to facilitating critical conversations, the summit provided practical resources and strategies to enable participants, ranging from academicians and students to practitioners, to establish a culture of well-being in their workplace and throughout the profession.

A feeling of belonging

According to a 2014 survey of over 11,600 U.S. veterinarians, only 15 percent of veterinarians with serious psychological distress somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that people are caring toward persons with mental illness.

Summit attendees 
Summit attendees
The 2018 Veterinary Wellbeing Summit convened by the AVMA, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, and Zoetis, April 15-17 in Schaumburg, Illinois, was the fifth conference held on the topic of wellness and well-being. About 175 attended the event, including 25 social workers. The goal was to provide ideas from all parts of the profession to help others develop "a type of culture that supports everyone in their organization." (Photos by Malinda Larkin)

Dr. Brandt referenced the essay "Who's really to blame for physician burnout?" by Maiysha Clairborne, MD, to explain why health care providers may feel this way. Dr. Clairborne argues that while most physicians would say the system is to blame, no one considers the possibility that the physician community as a whole has some responsibility.

Dr. Clairborne writes: "When a physician inside his or her community does not feel safe even to talk to his colleagues (not his bosses or managers), then we have to look at who we are being as individuals that someone would rather suffer in silence and continue to spiral, rather than admitting to someone that they are in trouble. Furthermore, we can look at the fact that, in many cases, we are so busy complaining about the system that we often fail to notice anything else … like a colleague who is slowly slipping away. So, while it would be a natural reaction to blame the 'flawed medical institution' for a physician's suicide, it would have more integrity for physicians to look at themselves every once in awhile to see where we can positively impact this issue."

Veterinary professionals and staff can be part of the solution by reducing stigmas around mental health and being more inclusive, Dr. Brandt said. She emphasized the importance of belonging, a concept popularized by Brene Brown, PhD, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.

Citing Dr. Brown's work, Dr. Brandt said that "belonging" is being accepted for who one is. "Fitting" is being accepted for being like everyone else.

"Think how exhausting it is to fit in someone else's suit, day after day. Think about the emotional toll this takes. Am I invited to the table as me, or who you think I should be?" Dr. Brandt said, noting that an inclusive workplace has people who not only work better but also are healthier.

Speak up and be heard

Creating a culture of well-being starts with defining what well-being, happiness, safety, health, and inclusion mean to workplace leaders and their team members, Dr. Brandt said. Then comes implementing a well-being program that makes sense for that workplace. This could involve staff improving their own well-being; training on communication, suicide prevention, or emotional intelligence; prioritizing inclusion by hiring people who care about it; and eliminating barriers to well-being.

Dr. Brandt encouraged leaders in the workplace to create a shared vision.

"Leaders will have greater success at creating a culture of well-being and sustained productivity by including everyone's ideas, input, (and) experiences ... for how they can get on board with their own well-being, and how to support each other in creating shared objectives for well-being, according to 'Why a Culture of Well-Being Is Critical for Performance in the Workplace' by Wanda Krause, PhD.

"You may have an environment where people know what you don't know but are afraid to speak up, or people who aren't represented aren't there," Dr. Brandt said.

That speaks to the importance of creating a feedback culture. Rather than conducting yearly reviews, this kind of environment requires ongoing conversations that are multidirectional.

"Employees should have a chance to give feedback as well and people (should) feel safe to do it because they know how to do it effectively," Dr. Brandt said. "Creating permission ahead of time to inform people—this is what we can do to thrive."

A five-step toolkit to help veterinarians and veterinary paraprofessionals set up a workplace well-being program was created by the 2015-16 AVMA Future Leaders Program. The kit includes a short video stressing the profession's increased risk of depression, suicide, and substance abuse; ideas for creating a culture of wellness; work-team discussion points; a game plan for work group huddles; and guidance on appointing a workplace wellness champion.

Related JAVMA content:

Future Leaders champion wellness at work (Oct. 15, 2016)