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Transform your veterinary practice culture for better recruitment and retention

By MWI Animal Health

Create a veterinary practice that draws the best and brightest

Two yoiung women in scrubs talk and laugh

What makes a practice a strong place to work? What is that special something that makes a potential employee take notice of a veterinary practice’s job posting? Conversely, what makes your practice persona non grata among job seekers? The answer is practice culture.

Veterinary professionals want to love their work, work how they want, and care for more pets. A strong practice culture lets them accomplish all three. A weak culture, on the other hand, contributes to employee resentment, burnout, and eventually, turnover. Investing in your practice’s culture is a win for management, team, pet owners, and pets.

Downsides of weak culture

Employee retention is still an issue in the industry. According to Cindy Trice, DVM, Chief Veterinary Officer at Hound, “High turnover is going to be your biggest sign of poor culture.” The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports an annual 15 to 17 percent turnover rate for veterinarians and 25 percent for veterinary technicians. Veterinary staff will have different answers to whether their current work experience matches their expectations from school. Some will find fulfillment, while others will face challenges like depression or financial strain. Culture can magnify such struggles. If employees’ bond with a practice is weak or nonexistent, they will feel disengaged, not perform well, and eventually, leave.

Beyond the loss of team members, a weak culture contributes to a bad reputation for your clinic. Negative word of mouth from current team members can repel top talent.

Team members' daily attitudes also reveal a lot about practice culture. Is there low morale, apathy, or snarkiness about clients? Tension between team members can eventually result in dissatisfied clients.

“You can sometimes walk into a practice and not have anyone say a word, and you can just feel the stress and the negative vibes,” explains Dr. Trice, who has seen her fair share of weak cultures in her experiences as a relief veterinarian. Unhappy employees might project negative feelings onto clients, potentially impacting pet owners’ opinions of the practice and their likelihood of recommending it.

Inside the clinic walls, silos are another warning sign of a poor culture. “Front and back can't communicate. There's gossip going on,” Dr. Trice identifies signifiers of negative culture. 

Employees feeling that communicating concerns to management is unsafe is another alarm. Common forms of workplace distress include moral distress — when external factors prevent individuals from doing what they feel is right — and emotional labor — having to conceal private emotions in professional settings. These stressors can lead to conflict within teams if not managed properly.

From a patient care perspective, another sign of poor culture is a dip in care quality. In extreme circumstances, this leads to an increase in medical errors. “You can see [staff] getting impatient with the patients in ways that they wouldn't normally do when fatigue and stress enter the equation," explains Dr. Trice.

Indeed, burnout and exhaustion caused by excessive workload and lack of support are more red flags that a veterinary practice’s culture is lagging. Are team members frequently calling in sick? Is there a lack of pride in the workspace? The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Culture Roundtable identifies a critical link between a healthy workplace culture and the personal well-being of veterinary practice employees. AAHA research shows a steady decrease in veterinarians' engagement and satisfaction over the first five years of their careers. Healthy relationships at work are a significant factor in job satisfaction.

Upsides of strong culture

By contrast, one benefit of a strong veterinary practice culture is easier recruitment and retention of team members due to an attractive work environment. Highly engaged teams in really good cultures are going to tell their friends. 

“It's much harder to leave when you're working with a purpose in mind, you have shared purpose,” Dr. Trice confirms. People may initially come for the competitive salaries or benefits but they will stay for the culture which connects them with their purpose at work. Dr. Trice used the analogy of a sparkler on top of a cake. The sparkler is what first draws attention — PTO, high salaries, signing bonuses. But if the cake underneath the showy add-ons (the culture, in this case) is bad, then none of that will matter.

One sign a workplace has a positive culture is collaboration both within and across teams. “People respect everybody else's role and how that fits into the overall purpose,” says Dr. Trice. Idea exchange fosters lightheartedness and levity throughout the day. Such camaraderie is critical given the stress of the job and the sometimes rough decisions care teams face.

Indeed, AAHA defines different cultures within a practice. Micro cultures are the core teams of people who work together closely every day. Employees bond with a practice through their connections to others on this immediate team. “Culture is people,” Dr. Trice explains. People want to find a workplace where they can feel like their authentic selves, contribute, and feel valued.

Another sign of a positive work culture is appreciation and recognition. Achievements get celebrated. Team members who feel valued become more engaged, leading to higher productivity and innovation. Boundaries feel respected and time off and hobbies outside work feel both encouraged and celebrated.

Better patient care is another important benefit of a strong culture. Dr. Trice says, “Staff members should feel safe either admitting mistakes or making suggestions to  management.” She recalls one hospital where she worked as a relief veterinarian. A dog came in, very ill and declining rapidly, and no one could pinpoint the reason. A veterinary technician spoke up to say there was a similar case with the same symptoms the previous week caused by an opioid overdose. They administered Naloxone and stabilized the dog.

Dr. Trice admitted that in the moment, an opioid overdose didn’t cross her mind as the root cause. If the technician had not felt empowered to speak up, who knows what might have happened? Because that practice fostered an environment where everyone’s ideas mattered no matter their official job title, they could collaborate for improved patient care.  

“A positive culture requires daily focus and accountability from every employee."

Cindy Trice, DVM
That situation is an example of a veterinary practice with strong bridge culture. According to AAHA, bridge culture is the connective tissue that allows for productivity between teams. When the culture's foundation is solid, everyone has aligned for the good of the whole.

From a pet owner's perspective, pet parents can sense the practice's culture, which affects their experience and loyalty. When veterinary team members are clearly on the same team and working toward a shared purpose, pet owners will see that. A friendly atmosphere decreases anxiety, and engaged employees can educate pet parents more effectively.

How to build a better culture

“I would say the No. 1 thing is to make safety non-negotiable. You must have a safe work environment, and by that, I mean both physical and psychological safety,” Dr. Trice says. Her earlier story of the veterinary technician who spoke up about the opioid poisoning could not have happened without psychological safety.

To foster a positive culture, employee engagement is number one. “A positive culture requires daily focus and accountability from every employee,” Dr. Trice says.

Though everyone contributes to culture development, leadership is its primary driving force. Good leaders help their people see the purpose of their work, teach their direct reports that what they do matters, and understand and communicate what each person contributes to the practice. Managers should work toward establishing a shared purpose with a clear mission, vision, values, and culture. No matter how inspiring your vision and brand promise are, they are only powerful when your people have an emotional connection to the work.

Connection and recognition are key building blocks of culture. Practices may check in with employees’ well-being annually, but sometimes, this is too little, too late. Demonstrating continued interest shows people their role as owners of the culture and its improvement. Frequent check-ins show employees that you care while allowing for early intervention for concerning issues.

As Dr. Trice put it, “Checking in more frequently helps to capture the feeling and the sentiment of the team at that moment in time and allows you to see trends.”   

AAHA identifies “sinkers” and “balloons,” those people or events that either pull you down emotionally or help you stay resilient. The ability to acknowledge these elements and connect with colleagues over them helps create a strong culture. It recommends weekly "moral de-stress meetings" where team members can openly discuss their concerns in a safe space. Employee training in communication skills and conflict-resolution techniques can also help.

Gathering feedback matters, yet many employers don’t do anything with the information. Don’t just let it sit there collecting dust. Use the overall data from the team and/or specific individual feedback to improve processes, communication, patient care, and support team members' needs.

Celebrate successes frequently as part of nurturing a positive culture. Putting systems in place so that colleagues can routinely reward and praise each other leads to a more enjoyable workplace. Practices may not invest enough in culture due to lack of time or tools; however, tools like Hound's Rally feature can help manage this aspect efficiently by facilitating positive interactions among team members.

“With all these very clear benefits, why don’t practices invest more in culture?” asks Dr. Trice. “They don’t know where to find the time or the tools.”

A good culture is essential for retaining team members who will then promote the practice. It's not just about competitive salaries, but also about creating an environment where people want to work because they feel valued and safe.

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Recognition, rewards, and feedback are easier with the Rally platform