How to improve vet staff morale

If technical issues in the vet practice are causing morale to drop in the staff, here’s how to handle it

A veterinary practice manager writes:

We recently had some IT issues in the practice and things have been slow for us. The team members are getting visibly frustrated and taking it out on each other. They are snappy and short at times, in a bad mood, rolling their eyes, complaining, etc. I reward them with small things (like snacks and similar) but I don’t think it has made much of a difference. I’m really struggling.

How do I keep staff morale up?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this. It’s likely to take a lot of work and many more conversations.

Retrospectively, the best thing you could have done is to set expectations and communicate with your team frequently and openly about the IT issues. Holding a team meeting and saying something like “We are going to be experiencing some IT issues over the next few months as we change from one practice management system (PMS) to another. This is how we’ll manage the transition…” and then outline the steps involved in the transition, and how it’s all going to work.

Continue with this: “It’s likely that things won’t always go according to plan, and it will be a difficult time for everyone. But it will all be over soon and it’s important that we remain positive, professional and don’t take our frustrations out on one another.”

That way, when something does go wrong (and inevitably it will!), you can say “Remember when I said things won’t go according to plan, and at times you’ll be frustrated? Well, this is what I was referring to!”

Rewarding team members with snacks is all well and good, but not everyone is motivated by rewards like that. I know that I would be furious if I was continuously experiencing the same technical problems, but the manager kept trying to be positive and feeding me snacks! I don’t want snacks. I just want to know that you have acknowledged the problem, what you are doing to fix it, when will it be resolved, and what I can do in the meantime!

The most common mistake I have seen managers make in this situation is working tirelessly on the solution ‘in the background,’ but not keeping employees in the loop. I suggest you establish regular communication with the team and with individuals: hold weekly team meetings where you update everyone on the progress, ask them what’s not working, and what their biggest frustrations are. You’ll be surprised by some of the things they say — a very minor, easy-to-fix technical issue may be causing massive delays in their workflow or causing frustrations for clients who then take it out on your staff.

So, the first thing you need to do is arm yourself with information. Give them a way to convey every single problem to you — maybe a message board in the clinic, via email, in weekly meetings. Whatever it may be. But highlight that you need to know exactly what’s not working, so you can fix it.

Once you have all the information, prioritize it. Deal with the ‘low-hanging fruit’ first — technical issue or workarounds that are easy to fix but will have a big impact. Share the good news with everyone and watch how it will lift their spirits!

Then begin to tackle the more difficult issues — the most difficult will be complex solutions to small problems. These are ones that will take a long time to fix, but the benefits will be negligible. Explain why they are not a priority right now, and set a date in the future when you will revisit them. Remember, it’s all about setting expectations and communicating!

Give your team weekly progress updates, even if you haven’t managed to resolve something that you said you would — tell them why, and what you are doing about it. People feel helpless when they are kept in the dark and have no control over what’s going on. That leads to the frustration and low morale you are witnessing.

In addition to communicating openly about the technical issues, keep focused on the future — tell them what it’s going to be like when all the IT problems are resolved. Show them the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re going to ‘bribe’ them with snacks, this is the time to enthusiastically promote the dinner you’ll take them to when this is all over!

If you are doing all of this, and you are still seeing people complaining, rolling their eyes and snapping at each other, you need to act on it. Have one-on-one conversations with those individuals, saying things like, “Jo, I noticed that you have been in a bad mood all day and snapped at Sam. I know that we are all experiencing frustrations with the new software [or whatever it may be] — is there something else bothering you?”

If Jo says “No,” then you need to remind her of the expectations you have set: “We are all in the same boat. Remember I said that it would get frustrating at times? It’s really important that we don’t take it out on each other. You’ve told me about some specific issues you’re having with the new software, and I told you what I’m doing about it. In the meantime, I can’t have you disrespecting other team members. Do you think you can be courteous to everyone while we work through this together?”

Get Jo’s commitment on this — if the same behavior is repeated, you can write her up.

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