What to do when your vet practice is short-staffed

What should you do if your practice is short-staffed and its affecting team morale?

A veterinary practice manager writes:

We have been really short-staffed at the hospital over the past few weeks. We had some staff turnover, sickness, going back to school, etc. We just haven’t been able to fill all the shifts for the past five weeks or so. Of course, we are recruiting but it takes time. As you can imagine, this has had a negative impact on workflow, client service and patient care and has put a lot of pressure on the staff, who have had to pick up additional shifts. In particular, there are two full-time veterinary techs who have picked up additional shifts, and while they were happy to do it initially, the extra workload is now causing them to be rather grumpy and negative. A number of team members have already commented on the super negative attitude of these two techs.

How do I talk to them about their attitude without making them feel like I don’t appreciate their hard work?

I think many readers will identify with this scenario as most of us have been in this situation at least once in the past. It’s not at all pleasant, and the frustration and fatigue your team members are experiencing is to be expected. I have no doubt that you are doing everything you can to find a replacement for the team members who have left. Here are a few things I would suggest you do:

  • Speak to the two techs who have picked up additional shifts. Tell them how much you appreciate their work, that you are well aware how difficult this period is, that they are doing a fantastic job holding the fort. Be sincere.
  • Let them know what you are doing to alleviate the pressure — fill them in on how the recruitment process is going, why it has been challenging and what you are doing to fix this. It’s important that they know there is light at the end of the tunnel and you are not taking them for granted.
  • Reward them for their hard work: Give them a voucher; take them out to dinner (now is probably not the best time, wait until you fill the positions); do something nice for them to back up your words of appreciation.
  • Step in and help. If you are a vet tech yourself, limit your practice management shifts and help the techs. If you are not a tech, ask them what you can do to help — cleaning, doing hydrobaths, reception. Anything. Lead from the front and get in the trenches with your team during this tough time.
  • Rally the rest of the team. Holding a team meeting right now probably seems like an insane idea, but any time at all you can get to gather the team will be incredibly valuable. Even if it’s just a quick ‘pow wow’ at the beginning of the day, or a couple of minutes over lunch (right…you’re probably not getting those either!). Everyone needs to be putting in 100 percent and the focus should be on customer service and patient care. See if there are any non-essential tasks that can be put on the back burner. Involve everyone in this brainstorming process. What can the vets do to help the support staff?
  • Expect tears. Let the two techs know that you are aware this is a difficult time and it’s normal for tensions to be high. Remind them that your door is always open and they can come to you when they are frustrated and just need to take a moment with a box of tissues or chocolates. But also remind them that it’s unproductive to take out frustrations on each other.
  • Get creative. You have probably explored all options, but look again: is there anyone at all who can help out? Speak to each team member individually and see if they can pick up just a few additional hours per week. Any former team members who may be able to come back and help out? Have you had any great work experience students? Would a neighboring practice be willing to lend you a vet tech?

So, to answer your original question, “How do I talk to them about their attitude without making them feel like I don’t appreciate their hard work?” You don’t… Well, not really. You do all of the above to show them that you DO appreciate their hard work and you fix the problem. Only when they see you doing that, can you remind them that despite the current situation, there is no room for a negative attitude at your veterinary practice.

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