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Bosses – keep checking in to help stop your staff from checking out

Written by: Steve Bailey
Published on: 1 Sep 2022

Image: © fotomowo / Adobe Stock

Image: © fotomowo / Adobe Stock

As clinicians, all vets know that the sooner a problem is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment and a positive outcome. Yet, as employers, vets often seem curiously reluctant to apply the same logic to their businesses.

We all know the sector is in the middle of a labour shortage of unprecedented proportions. Brexit, COVID and the increasing number of staff choosing to leave the profession all mean that finding new staff has never been more difficult. Endless rounds of recruitment also add further to the stress on remaining staff, cause disruption to services and discontent to clients, and (if the figures quoted by recruitment companies are to be believed) can lead to a total cost to the business of around a third of the annual salary of the person it is replacing once fees, time and lost productivity are taken into account.

With all this in mind, surely practices should be doing all they possibly can to retain the staff they have. So, why aren’t they?

What if?

In the author’s experience, practice leaders usually know that things are not going well. It’s rare (though not unknown) for a total ignorance to exist that all is not well beneath the surface. Staff turnover figures speak for themselves, and it’s often hard not to pick up on a less than positive atmosphere when practice premises are relatively small, and staff interactions direct and frequent.

Where the reluctance tends to creep in is in wanting to dig any deeper. It’s almost as if rather than aiding understanding and taking the first step on the road to making things better, being genuinely and openly curious as to what is going on will just make things worse. As if exposing issues to the light will just exacerbate things. What if word got out? What if we asked and other staff also agreed this was a problem? What if it’s a bigger issue than we had ever realised?

Pandora’s box

How about instead of seeing such investigation as lifting the lid on Pandora’s box, we instead viewed it as the clinician views the blood test and the biopsy? As an opportunity to rule things out and to understand what the true causal factor(s) might be to start the optimum treatment as early as possible to secure the best outcome possible?

After all, the member of staff who is feeling unsettled, unhappy and underappreciated will still feel all those emotions, regardless of whether you take steps to understand how things are for them – the only difference is that by being aware, you have the opportunity to try to make things better and maybe, just maybe, of convincing them that you are an employer worthy of their respect and loyalty.

Feeling the pulse of the practice

If I’ve managed to convince you it is better to know what your staff are thinking and feeling than not, this then begs the question of “how?”.

The temptation can be to go in “all guns blazing”. But if not handled carefully, even the best intentioned attempt to have an “open meeting” or a “staff survey” can backfire, being received by sceptical staff as either a token gesture or – even worse – having some ulterior motive behind it.

The secret is to start small and be prepared to be in it for the long haul. This is about changing a culture, not waving a magic wand.

What follows are a few approaches that can be taken to help “feel the pulse” of the practice. You might decide to use one or to sequence or combine them in some way.

The objective is to ensure a steady flow of honest feedback about how staff are feeling across all parts of the business, which can then inform any remedial actions you and your team choose to take.


Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But when was the last time you asked your receptionist or head nurse “how’s your day going?” and listened – and I mean really listened – to the answer?

Of course, not everyone will suddenly open up their deepest concerns or frustrations just like that, but it’s a start. For those who do seem inclined to share, perhaps try probing a little further with some open style questions; for example:

“So, what’s been the highlight of your week so far then?”

“What do you wish you could have changed about today?”

The staff suggestion box

Practices often have suggestion boxes for clients to share their ideas for improvement or to vent their frustrations, but it’s less common to see the same approach extended to staff.

Providing the opportunity for staff to unburden themselves can serve a similar purpose, as well as surfacing some potentially useful ideas. Plus, the anonymity it provides may also embolden those with good ideas or burning resentments, which may otherwise be left to rot. And yes, that same anonymity might be seen as an incitement for some to air every grievance under the sun, but this can be mitigated to a degree through the design of the slip to be completed.

Prompt questions such as “how could we help you to make things better?” are deliberately phrased to encourage a solution-focused response, and one that emphases this is not about magic wands or white knights riding to the rescue, but teamwork and collaboration, with everyone having a role to play in making things better.

Mood checkers

Of course, things never stay the same. Individuals and teams have good days and bad. Things that may be causing underlying tensions one week may disappear the next. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they just slowly and steadily keep getting worse, and yet no one is really noticing. This is where it can really pay to find ways of constantly checking in on the mood of the practice.

Now, it’s worth saying in advance that none of the following suggestions make any claims to be “scientific” and, yes, are fully open to all sorts of manipulation should people choose to, but in my opinion their value as a cheap, “low effort” and ongoing source of “mood checking” outweigh any downsides.

Here are a couple to try; both make use of the staff room or other shared space that all staff are likely to access at some point during the working week (kitchen, cloakroom, even a corridor will serve at a push).

Invest in a whiteboard of a size suitable for the space and place it in the best “communal” space you have. Better still if it’s one of those on which you can attach magnetic counters and the like.

Option one: the happiness line

Simply draw a line horizontally across the middle of the board. At the left end of the line, draw a :( at the right end draw a :) and put a small notch in the middle of the line (Figure 1).

Then, buy enough magnetic counters to ensure there is one for every person in the team and encourage everyone to get into the habit of finding a moment during the week where they place a counter on the line according to how they are feeling at that moment. The further to the right, the happier they are; to the left of the line, the unhappier they are.

If you have a large team, you can also finesse this a little further by having, say, red counters for vets, blue for nurses and green for support staff – but I’d suggest only doing so if you have more than five of each.

That way, you can start to see if things seem to be specifically annoying your clinical staff, for example, but in ways that still allow everyone to preserve their anonymity.

Include the date and take a quick photo of the spread of opinion that week before removing the counters ready to repeat again the following week.

Option two: the motivation matrix

This is really just a slightly enhanced version of the happiness line. Instead of a single horizontal line, we add two axes to our whiteboard. The vertical line measures the degree to which staff feel “appreciated”, whereas the horizontal line captures how “stimulated” they currently feel in their work (Figure 2).

The same approach is followed with staff encouraged each week to place their counter in the space on the board that best represents both how appreciated and how stimulated they feel at that moment.

These two aspects have been carefully chosen to better understand two of the key determinants of whether people tend to be happy in their work: the degree to which they are engaged in tasks that they find interesting and the degree to which they feel appropriately recognised for the work they do.

It is the combination of these two perspectives that offers the potential for greater insight into how your staff are currently feeling and, even more importantly, opens the door for informed thinking as to what might be required to improve things.

The following version divides the matrix into four quadrants to start that process of better understanding what it is that your staff are telling you through the positioning of their counters (Figure 3).


Low stimulation/low appreciation: disengaged

Staff are not engaged in tasks they find rewarding and do not feel they receive enough recognition for what they do. A real danger exists that, without improvement, staff who regularly find themselves in this quadrant will look elsewhere.

Low stimulation/high appreciation: under-utilised

Staff are not engaged in tasks they find rewarding, but do feel their efforts are well recognised. A risk exists here that the practice is not getting the most out of its staff and staff will get frustrated by the lack of opportunity to maximise their potential.

High stimulation/low appreciation: under-valued

Staff are given interesting and challenging work, but do not feel they are recognised appropriately for it. If left unchecked, this can lead to feelings of resentment and potentially a desire to go somewhere else, where they believe their talents will be better appreciated.

High stimulation/high appreciation: motivated

Staff are regularly given challenging and enjoyable tasks to perform, and feel duly appreciated and rewarded for their efforts. Staff in this quadrant are likely to feel motivated and less inclined to feel the need to look elsewhere.

The terms here are deliberately designed to be broad and all-encompassing. “Appreciation”, for example, can come in many different forms. For some, it could be viewed purely through the lens of their pay and benefits; for others, it could simply be whether someone ever thanks them for staying behind late to finish a task, or takes the time to recognise a job well done.

Likewise, with “stimulation”; for some, the thought of tasks that repeatedly take them out of their comfort zone will be what inspires them, while others might take their satisfaction from diligently completing the same familiar tasks each day.

The motivation matrix alone can’t uncover all those complexities, but it might just give you the starting point for doing so.

Option three: dig a little deeper

In addition to, or instead of, these deliberately “light touch” approaches, the option always exists to dig a little deeper.

Online survey tools make it comparatively easy to reach out directly to all staff in a practice and to seek specific answers to specific questions.

The data you receive is likely to be fuller and richer, and might just get you to that point of understanding you are seeking that much quicker.

But they are not without their potential drawbacks. Even when completed anonymously, no guarantee exists that they will be completed truthfully; plus, questions can be open to all sorts of (mis)interpretation not foreseen by the compiler.

And yet, if well targeted and introduced with due care, they can be an important tool in the kit box.

If you don’t have the time or wherewithal to design your own, companies exist out there that you can call upon. The author’s own Practice3601 is a “discovery tool” designed to help veterinary practice leaders better understand their business by viewing it through the eyes of their staff and comparing this perspective with their own.

In addition to the initial insights provided by the data collected, it also provides a starting point for further collaborative work across the practice to make changes to maximise the potential of the practice for the benefit of all.

In fact, the author would like to offer the chance for one practice to trial the full Practice360 review process for free. Visit the Space Coaching Services website for contact details.

Conclusion – constant vigilance

Any business would be the first to say its staff are its greatest asset and, in the current climate, the value of those assets has increased markedly.

Retaining the loyalty and appreciation of your staff is now business critical, and doing so is a sound investment in your practice and its future success.

Key to this is to start applying the same vigilance and constant monitoring of the “vital signs” of your employee’s satisfaction and state of mind that you routinely apply to the patients in your care.