A Blog by Carol Hurst, LVT, CVPM

I was an “adolescent” manager -already comfortable in my role and now knowledgeable enough to know how much I didn’t know. Like many practices, we were battling a particularly frustrating bout of gossip among a handful of our team members. I was diving into articles, consulting with my mentors and management community – all in search of the ideal answer.

The consensus seemed to be the same. I needed to “nip it in the bud.” Make sure that I either coached the offender or escorted them on their merry way out of my practice. Such a simplistic response for what is often a complex problem within practices. Could it be so easy?

Armed with this sage advice, I pulled my offender aside and set about “coaching.” I discussed the harm of gossip and tried my best to lead this person into seeing the error of her ways. My lack of experience in such conversations had me coming up short. Exasperated, at one point, she told me, “You can’t just stop us from talking about what’s frustrating us.”

I didn’t show it externally, but that little comment haunted me years after the discomfort of the conversation had long faded. It took me a while to define exactly why the words felt so accurate despite being inappropriate. I wanted, no needed, to stop gossip in the clinic – but was she right? Could I stop them from talking like that? Finally, I attended a lecture where the speaker shared with us their method to give the team an outlet for discussing stressful veterinary situations, and it clicked…

Our roles are inherently stressful. This isn’t a new concept. As a by-product of the profession we all love, we are dealing with more than furry family-members – we are dealing with people’s money too. We are often caught in the middle of the clash of love versus money, as we must ask people to make decisions for these family-members based on how much money is in their wallet or bank accounts. When these two components collide, it is frightening how easily many different stressful outcomes can occur.

Likewise unsurprising is the sheer lack of training our leaders have in helping our teams deal with said stressors. This is getting vastly better than it was even five years ago. I can name countless colleagues (my own company VetSupport being among them) who dedicate a fiery spirit to the wellness and education of stress relief techniques for veterinary teams.

This is what Adolescent Manager Me was missing all those years ago – the tools to give my team to relieve their frustrations and cope with their stress. If I had given my team a way to talk about the aspects of the role that was stressful and the emotions behind that stress, could I have prevented this Gossip Girl from taking hold? Yes, I believe I could have and I also believe that giving your team such an outlet can help address compassion fatigue.

Providing teams with outlets for stress is a concept that I’ve started to talk about in my own lecturing. I like to call it “Positively Venting.” Now, I am sure to define gossip first to show the distinction. Never in my discussions do I condone gossip. What I do encourage leaders to do is create a safe space that their team can talk about stressful cases and situations that caused them some form of emotional distress. These should always be productive conversations that avoid judging a client. The focus should be on the facts of the situation and how it made the team feel. Parameters should be set for these discussions as this method alone doesn’t address inter-team communications and dynamics. Having a strong and detailed conflict resolution policy is your friend here -teams who are taught how to discuss difficult conversations with each other will succeed with positively venting and will succeed in exam room conversations as well.

The times of expecting our teams to just “deal” with the highly stressful by-product of our profession must be urged to shift in a different direction. We need to put systems in place to help them cope, to provide support and to show that we recognize the stressors and are there to help.

If you are a support staff member and you run into any one of a myriad of frustrating situations within a practice, here are a few tips to both alleviate stress and ensure that you are being productive with the encounter.

  1. Take a breath. Often, taking a short break can help you gain perspective. Any time you are forced into a reaction while the emotional current of the situation is still high, it is rarely a good outcome. Have you ever heard of E+R=O? Event+Reaction=Outcome. You cannot control the events that happen – the only way to have some control over the outcome is to manage your reaction.
  2. Employ empathy. This is perhaps one of the most important skills you can develop as someone working in a veterinary clinic. See link below. You never know what someone is going through behind the scenes. This is true for a client or a staff member. Take a moment to actively give someone the benefit of the doubt before assuming you know the motivations behind their actions.
  3. Identify the stressor. Stay away from judgments and blaming and instead identify what about the situation was most stressful to you. Instead of saying, “This client is a terrible person for not having the money to treat their pet – and look at that Coach purse they are carrying!” – reframe the narrative to be more productive. “It is stressful to me when a client has financial concerns. I want to be able to help the pet and their concerns keep me from doing that.”
    You can’t put yourself in their wallet and assume they are choosing not to spend money that they have. That Coach purse could have been a gift, a thrift store find or from a time when they had money to spend but their own medical issues have since wiped out their account. There are too many factors to consider here. Instead, focus on what about the situation stresses you out. The better you are able to pinpoint, the easier it will be to mentally prepare yourself in the future.
  4. Consult/Communicate. This is where I will see “venting” turn into harmful gossip. A practice needs a platform to communicate these stressful situations productively. It is too easy (in the heat of the moment) to grumble, complain, and digress into tales of client or staff member judgement and think this is an appropriate response. If there is no formal platform set up, use your manager as a resource to talk through the situation instead of griping about it with a coworker. Not only can your manager help you employ empathy, they may have some helpful tips on how to make certain situations easier to manage. It is NEVER appropriate to bash a client or staff member whether they can hear you or not. Find a way to communicate kindly.

Finally, I leave you with this video on empathy in the veterinary profession. This video was created in a collaboration between Veteos and Brandon Hess. It displays the power of empathy. As a warning, some individuals have found it emotionally triggering as it is an impactful representation of what a lot of us go through daily. May you find empathy instead of gossip and understanding instead of complaints in your day.

About the Author

Carol has been in the veterinary industry since 2005 when she graduated tech school and became a Licensed Veterinary Technician. Even more than helping furred and feathered friends, she found that she enjoyed the fact that a leadership role within her clinic allowed her to be able to affect positive change. She managed for twelve years. After many years of study, she gained the designation as a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager in November of 2017. Her proudest accomplishment is the work that she’s performed for her local management group. She has been a member since 2010 and served as the President up until December 2019. In 2018 she started as an instructor for Patterson University’s courses and in 2019 she joined forces with the team at VetSupport, taking on a role as a full time consultant. Her family includes 2 boxers, her “furry” children, a husband and the newest addition, Rowyn, her “non-furry” child.