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Paola Perez-Loaiza headshot

Three Ways Leaders Can Better Prevent Mental Health Crises at Work — Before They Happen

Many may not realize that the veterinary field has long faced issues with mental health and well-being. An executive from VCA Animal Hospitals shares how the chain addresses mental health challenges veterinarians and technicians encounter at work.
VCA Animal Hospitals employees veterinary office

When I began my career, mental health was not a topic that was openly discussed. The idea of seeking therapy was something very private and even taboo. That way of thinking doesn’t work in the complex, chaotic and stressful world we live in today, with the wax and wane of the pandemic, as well as disruptive political and economic times.

The importance of mental health is now recognized as a tenet in all facets of our lives, from home to school and work. At VCA Animal Hospitals, mental health and well-being is something we’re focused on every single day. 

Many may not realize that the veterinary field has long faced issues with mental health and well-being, with veterinarians, veterinary technicians and others in the field routinely facing more challenges and psychological stress than most would imagine. 

Mental health and well-being issues in veterinary medicine

My time spent with our hospital teams has made clear the joy this field can bring – as well as the challenges our associates must navigate. 

So many of us have experienced the painful loss of a pet, but what many may not consider is the impact that these losses also have on the veterinary teams who care for our pets. Our tender-hearted associates care deeply about animals yet must confront loss and death daily. The same beloved pets we have treated since kitten and puppyhood sometimes take their last breaths in the arms of our doctors and technicians. Then our teams must pivot, gracefully and compassionately, to the next patient. They may treat a Golden Retriever in the morning, a Maine Coon cat before lunch, and a hamster in the afternoon, all while supporting, educating and reassuring pet owners – and sometimes crying with them.

This compassion fatigue isn’t the only thing hospital teams have in common with human healthcare. Veterinary professionals also face burnout, anxiety and depression due to the stressors they face every day. 

Supporting mental health and well-being for associates

Since stepping into my role at VCA last year, I have visited many locations and had meaningful conversations with our associates, learning firsthand the highs and lows they face. We have developed several initiatives designed to support the mental health and well-being of our hospital teams.

One of the most impactful changes we’ve made is the addition of on-site clinical social workers in some of our larger hospitals. These social workers provide emotional support to both clients and associates during challenging situations. In fact, we continue to add more social workers to our health and well-being team as we have been so impressed at the positive impact these licensed professionals have had on associates, clients and hospital culture.  

One particularly impactful example of the value of expanding our network of social workers came during a recent visit to our VCA West Coast hospital. There, the team shared stories about a five-year-old K9 officer, Cannon, whom they had cared for and come to love over several years. Earlier this year, Cannon suffered heatstroke during a training exercise and was rushed to our team for care. Unfortunately, not even the heroic efforts of our team and the world-class medicine they practice could save Cannon. He tragically succumbed to his injuries and passed away later that evening. The on-site social worker leapt into action, providing coping tools that minimized the emotional labor and had a meaningful impact on this team.  

 I’m encouraged by the results we’ve seen and feedback we hear that tells us our efforts to support our people have translated to improved well-being for our 35,000-plus associates. Here’s what we hope others can learn from our work.

Destigmatizing mental health 

It is difficult to admit that you may need professional help or to seek it out if there is a negative stigma creating a barrier. Thankfully with deliberate work, we can all create workplaces where mental health concerns are not taboo. At VCA, we see this through honest conversations among associates who give each another authentic answers to typical small talk questions. A simple, “How are you?” will be answered earnestly, giving teammates an opportunity to support one another. 

In addition to thoughtful peer-to-peer interactions, our managers are learning to be more observant and feel more comfortable expressing concern when they notice changes in a team member’s behaviors at work. In the past, we might not have wanted to pry if someone seemed withdrawn or tired. Now, we speak up and ask questions like, “Are you feeling all right?” and “How can I help?” A simple show of concern goes a long way when a person is experiencing depression or anxiety. Often people will open up when asked about their feelings, allowing us to help guide them to our mental health resources. Another important step is to be proactive. For example, I’ve heard from associates who feel that this proactive approach has saved their lives. Waiting until a team member is in a crisis is not an option. 

It has been heartening to see a strong acceptance of our company-provided programs, such as free access to the Headspace meditation app and free access to coaches and counselors through Lyra Health. We are particularly proud that no associates are left behind – whether they work one day a week or full-time, their mental health matters and they are provided with company-paid resources. 

Making mental health a commonplace topic is critical to helping people who might be in need. Noticing changes and seeking to understand the reason for them is much better than waiting for a critical incident. Everyone needs to feel safe and know it’s all right to ask for help.

VCA Animal Hospitals employees veterinary workplace

Practicing emotional leadership with intention

Mental health is no longer an optional topic for leaders. Today, it is more important than ever that leaders lead with empathy and compassion, looking out for their teams’ well-being.

I’ve seen this compassionate leadership firsthand through VCA president, Dr. Todd Lavender. Dr. Lavender is a veterinarian first, and he comes from a family of veterinarians, so he knows what it’s like to work on a hospital’s front lines – from the joys to the sorrows. His connection and deep understanding meant there was no need to convince him to care for or invest in health and well-being support. 

Other leaders have also come forward to show there is no shame in getting help when things are difficult. In the first chapter in our “Making Time for Mental Health” series, a scheduled set of dialogues, one of our longtime leaders shared an open, honest look at his private mental health journey, a story that had never been shared before. For this leader to come forward was reassuring and deeply impactful. He emphasized that people regularly seek treatment to address physical ailments and that we should think of mental health in the same way – it’s okay to need help, and most of us need it at one point or another. 

Encourage leaders at all levels in your organization to prioritize mental health and speak about their own journeys openly if they are comfortable. Mental health needs to be supported by leadership as a normal part of the employment experience and entirely without judgment. 

Disrupting the daily grind 

The veterinary field has seen a drastic increase in demand for care. In 2021 alone, our hospital teams cared for a record 4.5 million pets, and the work can feel relentless. We’ve all had those moments where we look up and realized we’ve worked straight through lunch. Now imagine that instead of moving from meeting to meeting, you’re jumping from treating one patient to the next. Rather than encourage the constant grind, it is essential to encourage teams to make time to experience moments of meaningful self-reflection. We’re intentionally creating a culture that makes time for these moments at work in three ways: 

  1. Encourage associates to step back during the busy days, creating time and space to pause and check in with themselves. Many of our hospitals have created meditation or calm rooms, outfitted with dimmable, soft lighting, cloud wallpaper on the ceiling and comfortable furniture – a space to take that pause. Even a one-minute meditation can have a meaningful impact.
  2. Encourage associates to carve out that self-care time for themselves when they need it. It helps to have direct access to mental health professionals who can support that journey. That’s why we brought on Lyra and why we’re building a growing network of social workers who are based in our hospitals, each embedded with hospital teams to offer training, resources and support.
  3. Evaluate and implement changes in our hospitals to make it easier for our associates to take care of pets, removing barriers that have become accepted as “the way things have been done.” It might be as straightforward as upgrading old or finicky technology or as complex as reimagining how teams collaborate.

In any profession, getting swept into the vortex of our daily deadlines is all too easy. We must create space for our people to assess and acknowledge their inner world.

Looking ahead 

While it’s critical to have a safety net available for those who need emergency support, we believe that some of the most impactful work that can be done in this area is preventative, working to avoid ever reaching the point of crisis.

It’s critically important that all leaders understand that our organizations succeed when our people feel fulfilled and supported. In sharing actions to promote mental health that VCA has embraced, we hope to encourage others to use these tools in their organizations. 

I believe that mental health support should be foundational for every company. Together, we must make intentional, daily decisions to put well-being first – for ourselves and for our teams. 

Images courtesy of VCA Animal Hospitals

This article series is sponsored by Mars and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Paola Perez-Loaiza headshot

Paola Perez-Loaiza is Vice President for People and Organization at VCA Animal Hospitals.

Read more stories by Paola Perez-Loaiza