Managers should aim to be ‘good bosses’

01 January 2013, at 12:00am

VETERINARY PRACTICE reports on some of the sights and sounds of the London Vet Show

STRESS, depression, addiction and even suicide: it is well known that the veterinary profession has a dismal record in preserving good mental health among its members.

Usually it is because the veterinarian concerned is unable to cope with the pressures of practice life – but how often is the problem actually caused by the fact that the boss is not very good at his or her job?

The importance of a boss’s role in maintaining a happy and productive veterinary workplace was discussed at a London Vet Show session organised by the Veterinary Benevolent Fund.

Speakers looked at the factors that determined whether senior staff are seen as good or bad bosses and attempted to find ways that a poor manager can be made to examine their own performance and seek to improve their skills.

Industry veterinarian David Bartram was awarded an RCVS fellowship for his research into the mental health and well-being of the veterinary profession. He said there is evidence that a disturbingly high proportion of the Royal College’s membership experience periods of depression in which they can have suicidal thoughts.

In more than 60% of cases these problems were work-related, such as the effects of long hours of high pressure duties on their personal lives or due to a feeling of being undervalued within the practice, he said.

Newly qualified veterinarians who were lacking in confidence in their professional skills were particularly in need of good support from their bosses, but often it is not given. Mr Bartram referred to research showing that 57% of new graduates received no formal appraisals of their performance during their first year in the job and only about one third of those who did receive appraisals had them focus on the new graduate’s progress through the PDP (professional development phase).

Mr Bartram highlighted the characteristics of a good boss, which include fairness, consistency, approachability and good communication skills.

There are strong legal and ethical reasons why every manager should aim to be seen by his or her staff as a good boss. But there are also good business reasons for wanting that reputation: staff working in a happy workplace are more productive, easier to recruit and retain, plus there is a close correlation between staff engagement and client satisfaction, he said.

To some extent, however, good bosses will be defying their evolutionary inheritance if they show empathy with their staff. Animal behaviour research and human psychological studies show that giving an individual status makes it highly likely that they will behave “like an insensitive jerk”, he warned.

But the biggest hazard in the work environment or at home is for someone to pretend to be taking notice of their colleague, friend of family member when they are not.

“You should never act as though you are listening when you aren’t. Faking it is even worse than not listening at all,” he said.

Deal with ‘bad apples’

But being a good boss is not all about being kind to colleagues. One of the most important tasks of an effective boss is to identify and deal with the “bad apples” that can ruin the atmosphere in a workplace.

He pointed out that negative interactions with a colleague have a much more powerful and lasting effect on an individual’s mood than any positive event. Also, if one person in a working group is behaving in a disruptive fashion, then it can reduce the productivity of the whole group by up to 40%, he said.

The problem for bosses is that they are the last people to know when they are performing well in that role. “It is always the most deeply incompetent among us who have the most inflated assessment of their own value.” So Mr Bartram advocated the use of 360 degree appraisals in helping all staff members to understand their limitations.

The meeting featured an interactive session where audience members were required to analyse the events in drama about a young veterinarian becoming disillusioned with her job. The play showed the effects of her receiving inadequate support from her boss who was so distracted by his own role to provide the help promised at her interview.

There was also a panel discussion featuring veterinarians with an interest in workplace psychology.

They repeatedly emphasised the crucial importance of the recruitment process in ensuring that any new graduate would be right for the practice – and vice versa.

Guilty of mistakes

Carole Clarke, who is principal of Mill House Veterinary Hospital in King’s Lynn, the only practice to have twice won the national practice of the year award, recognised that she has often been guilty of the same mistakes in handling staff relationships shown by the fictional character.

Erwin Hohn, head of training with the Medivet Group, emphasised the importance for a boss of knowing where and when to praise their staff for a job well done. A good boss must also be quick to identify unsatisfactory behaviour and seek to correct it before there are any serious consequences, he said.

Mr Bartram believed that many of the problems with bad bosses in the veterinary world were because senior clinicians tried to carry out managerial duties in their spare time. Being a boss is an important and time-consuming job and it is vital that those taking on the role allocate the time to do it properly.

But how does someone learn to become a good boss? Carole Clarke believed there were no real secrets. Time was important and after taking responsibility for managing her practice she no longer carries out any routine clinical duties.

Beyond that, it is a question of reading everything that can be found that is relevant to the managerial role and taking out membership of relevant organisations that do provide training, such as the VPMA.