Overcoming obstacles and barriers to workplace wellness

Change is hard, and instituting a workplace wellness program may be a big change for your practice. Preparing for obstacles ahead of time can make them easier to face.

Consider these possible scenarios with your team, answer discussion questions together, and review recommendations for action.

Scenario 1: Lack of Participation

You've created a great wellness program, and most of those around you seem to find it fun, inexpensive, and easy. As you might expect, however, there are some who don't participate and even disparage some of your efforts. After all of your hard work, you wonder if you have done something wrong.

Questions for Team Discussion

  • Why might team members dislike or not participate in wellness programs?
  • Who on the team or how many people need to buy in for a wellness program to be successful?

Recommendations for Action

  • Believe that not everyone on the team has to participate for success. However, there are key individuals (especially in leadership) or a critical number of individuals who need to buy in for the program to thrive.
  • Consider legal and ethical limitations to requiring team members to join in. You must accept it if a team member does not want to participate in wellness activities, if declining does not interfere with job performance. Additionally, forced participation is demoralizing and could counteract the benefits of the wellness program.

Scenario 2: Not Enough Progress?

It has been three months since you started what seems to be a successful wellness program. A handful of teammates go for a short walk around lunchtime every day; there's a chart comparing team member's daily water intake; and the bulletin board is peppered with "daily gratitude" posts.

However, last night was the third night this week most of the team had to work late with last-minute emergencies. This morning, a group is venting their frustrations and questions whether the organization's commitment to wellness is legitimate since employees continue to have to stay late with little notice. You're worried that the organization financially must take on this additional work.

Questions for Team Discussion

  • Where might business objectives and wellness objectives conflict? Where might they work together?
  • Team members may have different ideas of what wellness means to them. What are your team's highest wellness priorities?
  • How will your team know you have "enough" wellness in your organization?
  • Implementing a true wellness culture might require investment that pays off in the long term but requires sacrifices in the short term. List some examples where making a long-term investment has paid off for your organization despite short-term expense.

Recommendations for Action

  • Set clear, reasonable team expectations. Some desired wellness changes may not be possible for the organization. Match job descriptions and work schedules to typical work requirements, including when additional hours or tasks may be required, under what circumstances, and who makes the ultimate decision.
  • Plan ahead. Careful examination of common business patterns and creative problem-solving may help prevent unexpected wellness challenges. Empower the whole team to contribute by actively asking for ideas and suggestions.
  • Test alternatives. Instead of assuming the status quo is better, test alternative strategies that improve team wellness. When making a new change, rather than turning back at the first sign of trouble, set objectives and red flag boundaries that signal a problem. For example, revisit a new policy if two competitors begin to offer longer hours, or if expenses rise by a certain percentage.
  • Revisit how your team communicates a sense of urgency about wellness and your vision of wellness for the organization.
  • Keep it fun and flexible. Great wellness programs are self-sustaining because participating is easy and feels good. Not every wellness idea will work for every team. Try something new if your current plan isn't panning out.
  • Ask employees who aren't participating if they feel comfortable sharing their obstacle to participation, and provide assistance generating potential solutions.
    • Lack of motivation
    • Interpersonal conflict
    • Time availability/scheduling
    • Family obligations
    • Financial limitations

Scenario 3: Who Has the Time?

Your team comes back from a conference excited about implementing a wellness program. Unfortunately, you don't have the time right now to discuss making any changes, and there is absolutely no room in the budget for new programs. With busy lives and lean wallets, no one seems to have the time to develop the program or the money to start it.

Questions for Discussion

  • ​Have your team brainstorm for five minutes with no restrictions to generate as many ideas as possible for improving the wellness culture with little time or money.
  • Where might your business find other sources of funding for wellness activities?

Recommendations for Action

  • ​Utilize "trapped time" – People who tested this program found that some small physical activities were easiest to do when they were stuck in one place for a period of time, whether sitting on hold on the telephone, riding an elevator, or using the washroom. These may be the perfect place to post fliers for simple stretches, as these are moments when we often look to add something to fill our time.
  • Team-track current activities – Some beta testers started tracking their small wellness goals as a team in a mini-competition. By sharing how many glasses of water they were drinking per day, for example, they made an activity that was inexpensive and not very time-consuming a team activity instead of an individual one, and generated positive peer pressure.
  • Walk it off – Many of our testing teams found a way to walk. From walking meetings to a daily turn around the business with whomever was free at a set time, they found this to be fun and a great way to get to know each other better.
  • Build a guiding coalition. No matter the type of veterinary organization, our test sites found that the number of resources dedicated to wellness depended on the buy-in of leadership and interest of the team. Identify the people who are most essential to getting the resources you need, and help them understand the importance of implementing wellness. This may take time.
  • Explore outside financial resources such as wellness grants or sponsored training sessions.
  • Don't get overwhelmed. Even organizations that start small with a single wellness initiative are heading in the right direction. Even a single person setting a good example for the rest of the team makes a difference.

Scenario 4: Team Member in Crisis

A team member has recently started calling in sick frequently, and their behavior at work has become erratic. They have even been belligerent to some fellow employees, and you had to give them a written warning. This team member just approached you today and let you know that they have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Questions for Team Discussion

  • How might you help maintain a healthy work environment for your whole team, including this team member?
  • Have you known or do you know someone who has experienced mental illness? If so, what are some things you wish people understood about mental illness?
  • How would you feel if this person had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor as opposed to a mental illness?

Recommendations for Action

  • Know your mental health crisis resources.
  • Before finding yourself in a situation like this, consider team education about mental health to address misconceptions and stereotypes.
  • Know your legal or ethical limitations in these situations, and consult professionals when needed. It is not appropriate to ask employees to share a mental health diagnosis or to treat employees differently on the basis of that diagnosis.
  • Understand disability law, how it applies to physical and mental illness, and how to fairly treat any employee who appropriately requests and requires accommodations to perform their job duties.
  • Establish boundaries within job descriptions for the team as to what behaviors are or not acceptable, and apply those standards consistently for all team members.

Scenario 5: Solo Practitioner or Entrepreneur

You know you need more balance in your life, but you are running a business by yourself. Especially with the financial and time pressures of practice and a personal life, you know you need to find a way to adapt wellness concepts to your particular style or business.

Questions for Consideration

  • Who, specifically, in your life makes it easier or harder to develop and maintain wellness behaviors? Who do you consider part of your support network and can help you discuss and consider your boundaries and values?
  • What about working for yourself makes it harder or easier to implement wellness programs.

Recommendations for Action

  • Build a wellness team
    • You are not alone. Reach out to others who can help support you. This may include veterinary school classmates, colleagues in your field, family and friends, mental health professionals or career coaches, even yoga instructors. It's hard to expect any one person to support us all the time, so cultivate multiple sounding boards for diverse perspectives.
    • An accountability partner can ask you about your progress and hold you to your wellness goals.
    • Consider creating a support group of individual professionals (other veterinarians in or outside of your field, or other professionals) to raise the questions that others might discuss within their organizations.
  • Set boundaries
    • Set down, preferably in writing, your personal boundaries based on your values and goals.
    • Have a Plan B. If you are worried that trying a new wellness technique or setting a new boundary will not be good for your business, set a fail-safe boundary so that you only turn back if you have objective evidence that things are not going well. For instance, state that you will reconsider the change if you lose two well-established clients or if revenues fall by a certain percentage compared with the previous year.  Not meeting your goals may be less scary if you know what to do if things don't go as planned.
  • Plan for Growth and Learning
    • Set yourself up for small wins on the way to the bigger ones. Set SMART goals for wellness, so you can track your progress. In the beginning, keep goals small so you can start gaining momentum based on success. SMART goals are:
      • Specific
      • Measurable
      • Achievable
      • Realistic
      • Time-bound
    • Take a growth mindset. If you do not achieve a specific goal, you can still learn something from the process of trying to achieve that goal. Knowing what worked and what did not can help you understand yourself better.