Turn to AVMA and others for resources to improve workplace culture

AVMA House of Delegates discusses impact of workplace culture on employee retention, well-being

By Katie Burns
Published: 21 February 2023


Veterinary practices looking to improve their workplace culture need look no further than the AVMA and other organizations, which offer a wealth of information in this area.

Members of the AVMA House of Delegates were asked to widely share information on these existing resources to their staff and constituents after a wide-ranging discussion regarding the impact of workplace culture on employee retention and well-being. Members deliberated on the topic on Jan. 6 during the regular winter session of the HOD, held in conjunction with the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago.

Many of the resources developed by the AVMA work well with individuals and teams—so they are efforts a team could undertake together and then discuss, and work together to implement the ideas in their workplace.

Dr. Jane Barlow Roy
Dr. Jane Barlow Roy, New Hampshire delegate, speaks Jan. 6 on the floor of the AVMA House of Delegates about the impact of workplace culture on employee retention and well-being. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

The AVMA offers the following resources for personal and workplace well-being:

  • The Journey for Teams program, which offers opportunities to provide more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
  • Continuing education at the AVMA Convention, at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, and on AVMA Axon, the AVMA’s online education platform.
  • The Workplace Wellbeing Certificate Program, which teaches skills to the veterinary team to support a culture of well-being in the workplace.
  • Training in suicide prevention, which teaches people how to recognize that someone might be suicidal, start a dialogue, and guide the person to professional help.
  • The Brave Space Certificate Program, which empowers veterinary professionals to turn workplaces into environments where individual differences are recognized and valued.
  • The Train the Trainer Workshop, which offers instruction on how to become an educator in workplace communication skills that support well-being.
  • A new toolkit to help practices manage their reputations and combat cyberbullying.

The new toolkit was announced during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference. Developed with an educational grant from Banfield Pet Hospital, it is meant to provide guidance on preventing and combating cyberbullying, responding to and recovering from an incident, and supporting the physical and mental well-being of staff members.

It’s OK to seek help

During discussion at the Veterinary Information Forum, Dr. Jennifer Glass, Idaho delegate, recounted suggestions from her constituents for new resources from the AVMA, such as advice for deescalating angry clients. In that vein, the AVMA—in cooperation with Mars Veterinary Health and Banfield Pet Hospital and supported by an industrywide working group—has been developing a list of shared expectations and responsibilities for veterinary teams and clients. That resource will be unveiled in the coming weeks. In addition, the AVMA offers an on-demand webinar related to this topic.

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians who have left the profession should be part of the effort to improve workplace culture as a way to potentially reengage them, recommended Dr. Cathy Lund, alternate delegate for the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Dr. Christopher Gargamelli, Connecticut delegate, said his constituents offered a variety of responses to the topic of workplace culture, talking about taking personal responsibility for one’s own wellness, while there is still so much that veterinarians can do collectively for the profession.

The Florida VMA started a member assistance program for veterinary practices, but only about 40 people have used the program, said Dr. Richard Williams, Florida alternate delegate. He said: “I think it goes back to an issue that we very rarely ever address, that there is, I guess the term would be, a stigma out there, that if you have to ask for help, you’re weak.”

But it’s OK to ask for help, Dr. Williams said. The FVMA program pays for two hourlong sessions with a counselor, and then members can proceed from there.

Dr. Ernest Godfrey, Florida delegate, echoed the sentiment that it’s OK to ask for help. He said his hospital has an employee assistance program and conducts stay interviews with team members.

The profession also needs to focus on workplace culture affecting students in teaching hospitals, suggested Max Paulson, Student AVMA alternate delegate, to make sure new graduates aren’t burned out before they even start practicing.

Dr. Keith Poulsen, Wisconsin delegate, directs the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. He said that older veterinarians have to remember that the younger generations are very different. He said, “We can’t just expect what we did, they will do.”

Offering solutions

A lot of the problems in the veterinary workplace are in all areas of the workforce, said Dr. Stephen Dullard, Illinois delegate. He recommended reading “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni. Dr. Dullard said, “A lot of this is a deeper cultural thing where you have to change at a very basic level.”

However, once you can make changes, the gains are exponential, he said. His practice has been short of veterinarians, so he reached out to the credentialed veterinary technicians and other staff members to take on more tasks as appropriate. He said practices need to develop a team mindset.

Dr. Paul Toniolli, Utah delegate, said veterinarians must realize they are in control of their lives and they can learn how to say “no” when they are burned out. In response to bad social media or something going wrong, veterinarians should remember that they are good people and that they practice good medicine.

Dr. Erin Casey, Virginia delegate, said that the Virginia VMA provides an employee assistance program that is free for members.

Dr. Kristi Pennington, North Dakota delegate, encouraged veterinarians to look into services available from state governments. She said the North Dakota VMA is taking advantage of a program through the North Dakota state government that provides free counseling.

Dr. Kaitlyn Boatright, Pennsylvania alternate delegate, spoke from her experience being burned out as a young mother. In her practice, she has had staff members who have struggled to work when they didn’t have child care. She said veterinary practices need to support team members who are caring for family.

Dr. Rachel Cezar-Martinez, delegate for the National Association of Federal Associations, mentors many students of color, including a cousin of hers. She said veterinary practices need to understand the differences of individuals. She hopes that the AVMA’s new Journey for Teams program is widely used and that everyone starts appreciating diversity.

During open discussion at the end of the Veterinary Information Forum, the topic was of such interest that delegates shared additional comments for several minutes on the House floor. Later in the afternoon, members of the reference committee assigned to the topic focused their discussion on the topic of well-being, building on the deliberations during the VIF.

Reporting back to the HOD on Jan. 7, Dr. Diana Thomé, chair of the reference committee, summarized the committee discussion for the full HOD. She said, “The group identified that there are many relevant AVMA resources available and stressed the need to make sure that members are aware of what is available and how to make use of them.”

She said the reference committee’s discussion also included mention of tools such as employee assistance programs and mental health coverage available within the offerings of the AVMA Trust and VMA programs.


Related content:

Exploring employee assistance programs for veterinary practices: Are they a bother or benefit?

AVMA to launch certificate program promoting inclusive workplaces

Education, communication are important strategies to prevent suicide among veterinarians

Toolkit to help veterinary colleges deal with suicide

Prioritizing well-being at the institutional level