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Vet Profession to Hemorrhage Talent Until Professional Skills Get Center Stage

Interesting new research reported in the Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 2022 (HBR) found that those most in need of mentoring are the ones most likely to opt out of receiving it.

This is eye-brow-raising news with potentially profound implications. It, perhaps, also sheds light on why veterinary medicine has utterly failed to overcome the greatest source of stress and friction (and hence attrition) facing our profession - toxic client relationships.

Studies conducted by VetX with several hundred recent vet graduates have consistently shown that negative interactions with clients are the greatest source of emotional drain with more than 73% of respondents in one survey indicating client interactions were their greatest source of stress.

Depressing as this is, it’s not all bad news. The same study found that appreciative clients were also the greatest source of energising emotions.

Why does this matter? Because suffering a chronic barrage of negative emotions leads to burnout. Whereas regularly experiencing positive emotions tends to be a vaccination against burnout.

The implication is clear, happy clients = happy vets, and unhappy clients = unhappy vets. This being true, the next logical action is to examine what is the cause of unhappy clients.

Causes of Unhappy Clients

Bad vet demeanour, mismatched expectations (clinical or cost circumstances), poor time-keeping, poor clinical outcomes…. the list is longer than this, but if we were to divide it into two columns - clinical problems and relationship problems, the columns would be hugely asymmetric. The vast majority of issues and complaints are rooted in poor relationship skills.

It follows that if veterinary professionals were to develop their relationship skill competency we’d be highly likely to see an equally asymmetric positive impact on career satisfaction and retention. So what's not to like?

Well, not so fast Sherlock, because here we hit the problem highlighted by the HBR-reported study.

The elephant in the room is that vets avoid, actively opt out, or complain about the relevance of non-clinical skills training when it is offered. They are just not interested enough in this message or skillset to dedicate the time and energy it needs.

Instead, vets are myopically focused on a scatter-gun approach to clinical learning. They erroneously believe that “When I get to be good at [insert clinical skill here], then all of my problems will magically vanish”.

They subsequently pursue a mile-wide/inch-deep (or "Labrador in squirrel park") approach to clinical skill acquisition in the hope that this will bail them out of the pain of early career stress. As such they leave no time (or place little value) on dedicated and deep study of the most important and life-changing skills available.

Except it doesn’t work - because while most pet problems are clinical problems, most vet problems are people problems. You don’t get to have a happy career by communicating badly with the humans of veterinary medicine.

It’s a fallacy that we need to address, and do so quickly before we run out of clinical team members entirely.

Baked-in From the Outset - the Vet School Issue

The problem begins at vet school where despite practices calling for these skills to be taken seriously for more than a decade, there has been too little movement taken by too few schools. (Kudos to vet schools like Nottingham in the UK for taking this very seriously.)

For reasons known only to those in charge of setting the veterinary undergraduate curriculum, priority is given to learning enormous amounts of utterly forgettable “show-up and throw-up ‘exam bait’” theory. Or countless hours on rotation being stuck in hellish stress positions, holding esoteric things like an orthopaedic jig. Tools are unlikely to be held, let alone mastered, in a lifetime in general practice by most of our graduates.

Yet both of these activities are deemed more valuable by their placement in the examinable curriculum than even a week of communication skills. It’s nothing short of scandalous.

Not that a week would even scratch the surface, but a full year of studying this, integrated into every aspect of the course would be more appropriate. And it would certainly do more for our levels of graduate confidence, happiness, and retention than anything else we might muster as a reactive band-aid.

It's far too late to think about teaching practice life skills after vet graduates have begun their mauling in the bear pit of practice.

And let's be completely honest, mindfulness and yoga will do little to help if the underlying communication (and cultural) issues are left unattended. It's like giving anti-inflammatories to the lame dog without addressing its glaring obesity.

Shared Responsibility for Learning the Right Things

But it’s not just the undergraduate education that’s the issue. Practices and vets have a shared responsibility to recognise the value of relationship skills. Practices must offer, and vets must “show up for”, programs teaching client communication skills. For the practices, this means providing and ensuring vets undertake such training. It means pushing mentoring to the top of the agenda. Which will require time to be adequately scheduled (and treated as sacrosanct) each week to work on these skills until they are mastered.

For vets, especially those who currently feel like clients are ”the enemy”, non-clinical education should be prioritised and actively pursued. Ignoring, complaining, or actively avoiding opportunities to acquire skills in communication, time management, and emotional intelligence is utterly self-defeating as it virtually guarantees poor career satisfaction. Moaning about how awful clients are has become as common as hearing us British moan about the weather.

But it's a big fat excuse that conveniently covers up our part in creating the issue. And excuses are highly problematic because excuses disempower the holder from taking the action necessary to change the outcome.

All clients are mean, so why should I even try? Is a very bad mindset to fall into. Firstly because it leads to an ongoing cycle of misery. And secondly, because it simply is not true. It would be comical if it wasn't so destructive.

A wise colleague, on a day when I was not being the best version of myself at work and it seemed like the world was out to get me, was kind and courageous enough to share the following feedback with me.

“Dave, a word?” she said as I ended a thoughtless and futile tirade at some perceived injustice. I grudgingly followed her to a quiet spot.

“You know, sometimes, when it seems like everyone else is being an asshole…”, she looked me straight in the eye.

“’s not everyone else.” Her eyes twinkled and her message was clear.

It might have hurt to hear this in the moment, but my goodness she was spot on and it snapped me out of my self-indulgent, relationship-wrecking mood. And it’s a message that helps me to this day.

Our profession would do well to take the message onboard. It is highly, highly unlikely that clients are all mean and hate us.

Avoidance is Getting Us Nowhere Good

One of the starkest lessons from twenty years of leadership and a decade of teaching professional skills to vets is that relationship skills should not be optional. If they are, vets will eschew them in favor of chasing the clinical rabbit. This aligns entirely with the findings reported in HBR - those who most need mentoring, are the ones most likely to opt out.

The veterinary profession needs to learn professional skills desperately and mentors are a huge part of that happening.

Like it or not, there is no escape from the need to learn how to build lasting, trusting relationships - with clients and colleagues. Those that do, thrive. Those that do not suffer, burn out and leave.

For practices that wish graduates to thrive, one of the most important steps is to invest in skilled mentoring and structured, non-clinical skills training as a non-negotiable foundation course in the learning and development cycle. Your new colleague, regardless of age or stage of career, should be dropped into this in week one and it should not stop until it can be proven that it’s working. This isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must-have. In fact, it’s a safe bet that everyone involved in a client-facing role should undergo such training.

This will of course cause some disruption to 'life as normal'. It will mean schedule changes, reallocation of time from clinical work to non-clinical training, and it may even mean hiring someone to be responsible for learning, development, and (I’ll say it quietly) culture.

For universities and the entities who help set curricular standards, the feedback is loud and clear. If you have not added high-caliber, professional skills training to your curriculum in a way that actually impacts behaviour, you are failing your graduates and the profession beyond. Day one competency starts with being able to interact with people, not pets. It’s high time we acted like we understood this point. It’s a sick joke to take huge sums of money for a degree that ill-prepares graduates for the environment we know they struggle to cope with. To continue this is at best ignorant, at worst probably unethical.

Finally, for vets, there is ample time to obtain all the clinical knowledge you could ever hope to acquire. But there is a clock running from day one on how long you can last in the face of a chronic, negative emotional burden. Burnout is your enemy. But you can avoid burnout by first learning how to create lasting respectful relationships with clients and colleagues. Doing so creates friends, not enemies. And who doesn't like to hang out with friends? Who knows, you might even make a career of it!


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