Top Tips for a Mentally and Emotionally Healthy Workplace

On 24 July, 2012 in Human Resources by Rosie Overfield

In the veterinary industry, managing emotions and developing team effectiveness have begun to emerge as a sub-discipline for success.  The new rules for determining a successful, healthy practice is more about measuring personal qualities of the team such as communication, adaptability and emotional resilience. 

Based on data from the Australian National Mental Health Survey, it is estimated that half a million full work days are lost every month and workers cut down their activity on another one million days in one month due to mental health disorders such as depression[1]. More and more employers are recognising that staff retention is not just about a pay packet and getting a lunch break. It is important management task to monitor the wellbeing of team members and provide an environment which promotes resilience and personal growth.

So with education and IQ put to one side, can a veterinary team get “emotionally smart” about these personal qualities and significantly impact the relationships between client and practitioner, nurse, colleague and self?  Absolutely.  


1. Take your organisational pulse

Daniel Goleman Ph.D suggests the first step in building mentally and emotionally healthy workplaces is to take an ‘organisational pulse rate’[2].  Lack of awareness and understanding of stress and mental health issues often underpin chronic absenteeism and excessive sick leave. Where is everyone at? What does each team member find satisfying about their role and what creates the most stress for them?  

A national survey[3], administered through the VNCA website to over 600 Australian veterinary nurses provided an interesting insight regarding stress and veterinary nursing.  The top four areas of stress were not related to animal attacks, salary or long hours; it was the “people stuff” that was the most difficult to cope with. 

Handling difficult clients


Not having enough time


Discussing/disputing professional fees


Problems with colleagues


It is not unusual for these areas to be a great source of stress, frustration and anger in veterinary professionals. 

2.  Normalise mental health problems and compassion fatigue

Mental health problems should be treated in the same way as physical ones. Females, aged 18-24 years, represent the largest percentage of depression sufferers in Australian adults[4] and also a large portion of the veterinary nurse and new graduate population. 

Normalising mental ill-health such as depression and anxiety disorders, go a long way to promoting open communication and early intervention.  Often times, team members may ignore others at work even when they know there is a problem. Teach your team to check in with each other and not ignore changes in a colleague’s behaviour. Ensure your practice is well resourced with factsheets, time to talk and referral contact details for local mental health professionals.

3. Let team members know it’s okay to not be okay

Every veterinary professional is different, with a unique set of values, beliefs and expectations. This means that each person in your practice may have a different ‘level of okayness’ about the things they see and hear. 

It is vital that veterinary practices implement open discussion during the ‘new employee induction’ phase.  This is the best time to show new staff that it’s normal to have bad days, it’s normal to be affected by certain cases and that it is normal to put your hand up and say ‘I’m not okay’.  Additionally, give team members permission to say ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be okay with this’ BEFORE the event occurs (such as a euthanasia of a beloved patient).  This allows the team to provide additional support to that person and alerts the practice manager to consider swapping a staff member and allocate time for debriefing.

Where relevant, develop additional ‘check in systems’ such as a buddy program to ensure team members check in on each other after particularly difficult days.

4. Stop the Slime

Within practice teams it is also easy to ‘slime’ each other with stories from our work with clients and patients.  Francoise Mathieu, a compassion fatigue specialist, describes ‘sliming’ as the action of traumatising our colleagues without their consent.  Vicarious Trauma is defined as the ‘imagined participation’ when listening to someone telling a traumatic story.  We take on board the sensations of the event and often have an emotional response ourselves.   So how do we support our peers and debrief properly?  Informal debriefing or ‘Low Impact Debriefing’ is more about immediacy.  We may see a cruelty case and need to informally talk to someone. This is okay, but we must ensure we don’t also traumatise the person we are telling. Low impact debriefing involves first ‘fair warning’ and ‘consent’.[5]  You need to ensure the person is prepared to hear the information by saying “I need to talk to you about XYZ. It’s a pretty gory story.  Is that okay and is this a good time?”  Start with the least traumatic parts of the story first.  It’s all about avoiding the slime!

A commitment to providing a workplace which is mentally and emotionally healthy doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.   It does however require a commitment to the belief that our team members are valuable and have the potential for healthy productivity.  As team members feel better, more relaxed, more valued and more human to their employers, they enjoy a personal growth which compliments productivity.   In these times, where employees seek greater flexibility, recognition and creativity in the workplace, practices cannot afford to ignore this important aspect of business success.

[1] Australian  Bureau of Statistics (2007). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results. ABS CatNo. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS

[2] Goleman, D ‘Working with Emotional Intelligence’ Bloomsbury 1998

[3] Overfield, R Australian Veterinary Nurses Journal, Volume 16, Number 6 – November 2010

[4] Andrews G, Hall W, Teesson M, Henderson S. The mental health of Australians. Mental Health Branch, Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, 1999.

[5] Mathieu, F Low Impact Disclosure – how to stop sliming each other, 2008


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