Building a culture of well-being… - Veterinary Practice
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Building a culture of well-being…

LIBBY SHERIDAN talks to Jane Simpson, people development manager at XLVets, about its “Thriving in Practice” programme and explores what practices can do to help the well-being of their staff

  • What was the impetus behind creating the “Thriving in Practice” programme?

It came directly from our member practices. XLVets is a collaborative group of 57 independent practices who work to support and help each other to grow. Some of the members asked us to help create a framework for ensuring good mental health and well-being through their businesses.

The RCVS-BVA Mind Matters Initiative has helped to raise awareness of the need for practices to look at well-being – our members were quite shocked by the findings of the 2014 RCVS survey of the profession that showed that only 46% of vets would opt for a career as a vet again, given the choice.

That’s very sad and evidence for us that something proactive needed to be done. Being quite a large group, we felt we could support each other in doing something. “Thriving in Practice” has come at just the right time and it dovetails with our other programmes that encourage well-being, such as our graduate and leadership programmes.

  • What is “Thriving in Practice” all about?

It’s a mixture of support materials, information and workshops. The content was developed with a pilot group of practices to explore and hone what was needed. Member practices can then select what mix of resources works for them individually.

We’ve taken expert advice from the government’s Health and Safety Executive, organisations such as Vetlife, Mind and the New Economics Foundation, and from our own consultant, Anne-Marie Aylott from PurpleCat Coaching. There’s also an employee assistance programme for all individuals within participating practices.

The crowning glory of the programme is the ability to have a regular forum for participating practices to meet and discuss what’s worked for them. It’s been inspiring to hear what practices are doing, and they have been so open and generous with their ideas and encouragement of each other.

Every culture within a practice will be individual to that business, of course, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that won’t work across the board. Many of the stresses and strains within practices are similar.

  • How has the introduction of the programme gone?

Very well. It’s now in its second year: we had pilots last year which consisted of workshops for the managers and leaders within the practices. These were aimed at educating them about mental health and giving them some materials to start to raise awareness within their teams about mental health.

They’ve whole-heartedly embraced it. This year the leadership workshops will be accompanied by team workshops. Champions – usually a leader and a team member with an interest in wellness – are driving it together. Practices are implementing systems and processes that encourage wellness as well as encouraging and freeing team members to take responsibility for their own mental health and general wellbeing.

  • Can you give an example of one such system or process?

The Employee Assistance Programme with Health Assured is one component of “Thriving in Practice” that member practices can adopt. All employees have access to a support line that they can approach for all manner of queries – advice on medical, finance, employment issues, debt, anything really that affects their health and well-being. There’s also a face-to-face counselling service they can access.

  • So, what are practices doing to promote well-being?

The individual approaches that I’ve seen are quite inspiring. Some practices are holding weekly keep fit or Pilates classes. Some are holding group events for fundraising for local charities and we’ve seen all sorts from cake sales to one practice that has just held its own Strictly Come Dancing event!

We have another practice that is training together for a 10-mile Tough Mudder event. Others have taken a more cultural approach on openness through regular well-being meetings to talk about the stresses that the team has encountered that week and share strategies for coping.

Most of the practices have taken advantage of the materials we’ve provided which include a “Five Ways to Well-being” poster that gives ideas around the themes of “Give; Be Active; Connect; Take Notice; Keep Learning”. These have been put up throughout the practice buildings along with Vetlife stickers and leaflets. They centre on the flower logo from the New Economics Foundation.

Others have used the HSE mental health assessment tool to benchmark well-being and see what needs to be done before they choose their approach. Teams have examined existing working practices and identified changes to reduce pressure and stress.

Another practice has a “Take Notice” campaign going to encourage everyone to acknowledge the everyday nice things that are done or said to support each other. And another has implemented a de-cluttering policy to clear and refresh their workspaces – and their minds!

I think what’s instrumental to the success of each initiative is that it’s being adopted and proactively driven by the practice leaders, who recognise that they need to live and breathe it and drive it.

  • Has there been anything that has worked particularly well for you?

I think that the collaboration and support between our practices has been outstanding. They’ll phone each other up and openly share ideas. We’ve got a lot of experience in this through our other programmes and we’ve been able to apply that to “Thriving in Practice”.

As I mentioned before, we have graduate development programmes for farm, equine and small animal vets, and there are cohorts of 10 recent grads from various practices that work through a two-year course together. There are clinical training modules, but also Survival Skills sessions that include training on communication skills, client relationship building and even driving skills sessions for our field vets!

The graduates tell us that the programmes have been very useful in helping to combat feelings of isolation when they’ve left the security blanket of college behind them and helped them with a forum to share those good and bad new grad experiences.

We also have trained mentors to give the graduates support, and this doesn’t just stop when the programme finishes – that access is there for our vets and team throughout their career journey. Many of those graduate programme members have been inspired to take part in the “Thriving in Practice” programme.

  • Are there any tips that you can give our readers on starting a well-being programme within their own practices?

The crucial part is involving leaders and managers first. They need to create a practice culture where everyone knows well-being is important, so that teams know they can speak about wellness and mental health without judgement.

I would also say to explore what materials and support structures are out there – Vetlife has some really good stuff that practices can use – and start off simply signposting their team to where they can find them.

Having an opendoor policy for people to come and talk without being judged has worked very well in our member practices. If that’s not already part of the culture and people are reluctant to do it, then I’d recommend the practice leaders just get out there and talk to people as they go about their day-today work.

I think leadership training is particularly important and worth investing in – some people will instinctively be great leaders, but I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t benefited in some way from further learning in this area. Finally, just incorporating the “Five Ways to Wellbeing” in the day-to-day practice life can make a huge difference.

  • More information about XLVets can be found at and Thriving in Practice at http://vetskills.

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