Veterinary practices must prioritize cultivating a healthy workplace culture. In a healthy work environment, employees are more efficient, productive, and invested in their work. They meet challenges with a positive attitude and collaborate with their peers to achieve the best possible outcomes. In an unhealthy or toxic work environment, morale is low, communication is poor, productivity suffers, and negativity spreads like wildfire.
A toxic work culture at your veterinary practice can have detrimental effects on your employees’ well-being, the success of your business, and the care your patients receive. In order to provide safe, competent, compassionate care, vet clinic staff must bring their best selves to work each day and function together as a team. If we’re bogged down by negativity, distrust, and poor communication, our business – and our patients – will suffer. Veterinary teams plagued by a toxic work culture have been found to be more prone to error and adverse patient experiences. And, toxic cultures come with a price. Dysfunctional workplace environments lead to high turnover, and turnover is expensive.
Unfortunately, the veterinary industry seems to be especially prone to toxic culture. Veterinary work is physically and emotionally demanding; our staff regularly experience the high pressure of dealing with life and death, and of operating with limited resources. With burnout, exhaustion, and retention problems plaguing the industry, clinics and hospitals that fail to focus on the wellbeing of their workforce will continue to lose staff and fail to retain the best and brightest.
Learn some of the most common reasons behind a toxic workplace, the signs you might have a toxic culture in your practice, and some key ways you can change it for the better.
Reasons for a toxic environment
There are many reasons why a workplace can develop a toxic culture. A few of the most common ones include:
Understaffing – When veterinary clinics are understaffed, employees become overworked and can quickly burn out. It’s easy to understand how this dynamic can lead to negativity, and ultimately create an unhealthy work environment.
Inconsistent leadership and/or policy enforcement – If rules are not enforced in a uniform way, those who follow them begin to resent those who do not. Inconsistency can create a perception that staff members are not treated equally. Confusion about clinic policies and expectations can make day-to-day operations frustrating and demoralizing.
Poor communication – Many (if not most) problems in the workplace stem from poor communication, both from leadership and amongst coworkers.
Signs of a toxic veterinary workplace
High turnover – If you have trouble keeping positions filled and your veterinary practice feels like a revolving door, that’s a sure sign of trouble.
Negativity, complaining – In a toxic work environment, negativity runs rampant, and employees frequently complain about everything from their leadership to office policies to their coworkers.
Gossip, passive aggressive behavior – When a workplace culture is toxic, problems aren’t addressed directly. Rather, you’ll find people express their frustrations by gossiping or being passive aggressive toward their coworkers.
Abusive language or behavior – Abusive language or behavior has no place in a veterinary clinic, and is a sure sign of an unhealthy work environment. A disrespectful or hostile work environment creates a culture of fear. Mistakes get swept under the rug rather than corrected, team members cannot trust one another, anxiety multiplies, and the practice suffers.
How to build a healthy workplace culture
Leadership sets the tone
A healthy work culture begins with leadership. As a leader in your practice, you can model the behaviors you wish to see from your staff, and set expectations by your own example. Promote psychological safety by exhibiting vulnerability and being accountable for your own mistakes. When staff see you acknowledge your own missteps with transparency, they are less likely to try to cover theirs up, and more likely to feel comfortable asking questions. Speak respectfully to – and about – your team members if you want to set the standard that abusive language will not be tolerated.
Communication is key
A healthy, productive work environment cannot exist in your veterinary practice without effective communication. Hold daily, weekly, and/or monthly team meetings to give employees the opportunity to voice concerns or questions with one another, and learn any new information from practice leaders. Any changes to the policies or operations of your practice should be communicated to all members of the team as directly as possible. Give and seek feedback regularly. Fostering an environment of open communication can alert you to potential problems before they take root. This also empowers employees to have a voice and to take ownership of the workplace culture.
Consider Your Hiring Practices
When hiring new staff members, it’s important to consider candidates’ values as well as their skill sets, because the members of your team will have a direct effect on your office’s culture. To determine if a potential hire is a cultural fit for your veterinary practice, ask questions about how they deal with frustration in the workplace, how they function within team dynamics, and how they go about resolving potential conflicts. Additionally, invest in your new hires by making sure they receive proper training about the office culture and values as well as the nuts and bolts of their job duties. When new staff are properly trained, they will be empowered to perform their jobs effectively, and existing employees will be free from the burden of compensating for their untrained counterparts.
Be consistent about clinic policies, communication, and adherence to your values in order to create a non-toxic atmosphere. Consistency establishes clear expectations about policy enforcement and day-to-day operations at your clinic, reducing unnecessary frustration and resentment.. Consistent communication helps keep all members of your team informed and up to speed, and allows for improvements based on two-way feedback. Team meetings and feedback sessions become less meaningful when they are sporadic, so strive for a regular schedule. And being consistent about your values creates the culture of the workplace. It’s not enough to simply name a set of values; you must strive to live up to them every day.
When staff feel undervalued, it can lead to low morale and a toxic culture. Show appreciation for your staff’s efforts in public or in private, through whatever methods will be most meaningful to your team. Recognize your employees’ contributions and highlight the difference they make in the lives of their coworkers and the patients they care for.