VetScript Editor’s pick – March 2018

Small or large, workplaces must now consider the mental and physical wellbeing of their staff. Matt Philp explores how some businesses are doing it.

You spend so much of your life in the workplace, shoulder to the wheel, eyes on a perpetually refilling to-do list. If you ever stopped to tally the hours (90,000 in an average lifetime), you would hope to have achieved something more than a salary and stress.

“You can make your work more meaningful and purposeful,” remarks workplace facilitator and wellbeing expert Nadine Marshall, who has a support role for MPI Verification Services (MPIVS) veterinarians who belong to the Professional Verifiers’ Institute (PVI) – the MPIVS veterinarians’ union.

“For me,” says Nadine, “wellbeing is not just dealing with issues of burnout, stress or poor health; it’s about that stoic thing, where people are simply working for remuneration with no sense of enjoyment
or enrichment.”

Wellbeing is in the spotlight. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 broadened the definition of health and put the acid on employers to consider the mental wellbeing of their staff. Stress, depression and other non-physical harms are now very much part of WorkSafe New Zealand’s ambit.

Interviewed on Radio New Zealand (RNZ) recently, CEO Nicole Rosie made an explicit connection between wellbeing and workplace safety.

“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that your fitness for work and your psychological preparedness are key factors in acute accidents, and also in health exposures,” said the WorkSafe boss, who stressed the importance of sleep, diet, fitness and mental resilience in building a healthy and safe workplace.

Veterinarians know all about stress and burnout but they don’t have a monopoly.

A recent BusinessNZ ‘Wellness in the Workplace’ survey found that stress and anxiety have risen 23% across surveyed companies since the inaugural 2013 survey.

Veterinary practices can learn something from how other industries are dealing with wellbeing concerns.

For example, at time of writing, Inland Revenue was advertising for a provider who would offer staff regular one-on-one consultations with a trained health and wellness practitioner and also hold bimonthly workshops on stress reduction and nutrition.

Nadine says the small size of many veterinary practices shouldn’t be an obstacle. “What is needed isn’t necessarily more time and more money – although those things are often part of the solution.

People can get very creative when they don’t have a lot of resources. It’s about promoting and enabling healthy behaviours and environments with small changes in how we are at work”.

Her work on behalf of the PVI comes at wellbeing from a variety of angles, but the thrust is that verification veterinarians should feel professionally valued.

And that value goes beyond remuneration as a measure. “It’s about having enriching work, being able to grow within yourself and the profession.”

At the practical level, PVI and MPIVS have taken steps to recognise and mitigate particular stressors.

“The working conditions for MPIVS veterinarians [can be] pretty challenging,” says Nadine.

“They can often be heading to and from work in the dark during winter to cold, concrete-block buildings – to slaughterhouses. These are things that don’t get talked about much, but we need to recognise that underneath some issues is the environment and how it takes a toll on them.

“In our professional practice initiative with MPIVS we also did a big push on fatigue, to address the significant stressors related to people’s hours of work. When veterinarians are fatigued it’s not working in the company’s interest, either.”

The institute worked closely with MPIVS on an initiative to use the ‘FAID’ modelling methodology – an internationally recognised analytical tool – to help management and staff better understand and respond to potential fatigue impairment. (FAID modelling looks at determinants of work-related fatigue, such as start and finish times and the duration of work and breaks.)

For wellbeing initiatives to be successful, there has to be buy-in by employees.

Nadine says veterinarians who work in a high-flux, demanding and volatile industry have been given the message about soldiering on, regardless.

“There’s a cohort of our people who are 40-plus and who have that work ethic where, when things get tough, you dig deep. In times of crisis, that’s invaluable, but if left unchecked it can culminate in a set of unhealthy behaviours and organisational culture.”

That brand of stoicism is best neutralised by stressing that it is both unprofessional and unsafe, while putting wellbeing front and centre. “When they’re looking at what is good work practice, they need to test it against wellbeing: ‘Would I make a good professional judgement if I were called out on my sixth day of work and I’d been doing long hours for five days in a row? Or do I need to ask for help?’”

One of the key lessons she has taken from her work with these veterinarians is, she says, “How important it is that they really recognise the value they bring to their work”. To that end, frontline MPIVS veterinarians now have more influence in frontline decision-making. “The way MPIVS works now, managers accept that they don’t have all the ideas; they use a workshop approach with frontline staff.”

MPI, she adds, “is very aligned with our thinking and has embraced the professional development and professional practice angle, which sits alongside professional remuneration. There’s an expectation that work should be rewarding and meaningful, and it is creating opportunities that allow people to develop and learn more in their roles. For example, veterinary verifiers now have clearly defined pathways across the ministry.”

In the corporate world, too, wellbeing is being taken more seriously – and not only for reasons of compliance. Paying attention to the mental health of staff and ensuring that they feel engaged and valued tend to be good for the bottom line.

In that above-mentioned inaugural BusinessNZ survey, nine out of 10 companies considered improving wellbeing in their workplaces to be desirable or a priority activity.

On the evidence of last year’s follow-up survey, many have put their money where their mouths are, with more than half of larger firms (50-plus employees) instituting wellness programmes. They’re also getting better at identifying stress, and are more likely to have some form of employee assistance programme to help their staff to manage it.

You wouldn’t want to overstate the good news. According to the survey, roughly 40% of workers still turn up to work when they’re ill. And while the big outfits are lifting their game, the picture is patchier among firms with fewer than 50 workers.

Smaller enterprises are now more likely to have employee assistance programmes for stress, but only a little more than 10% have wellness programmes, and the number of firms recording long working hours has risen significantly.

Even if a firm has a formalised wellbeing initiative in place, there’s no guarantee that it’s effective. Plenty of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) invest in off-the-shelf manuals or one-size-fits-all programmes that are more about ticking boxes than attacking the problems.
There’d be a concern, too, if companies were simply rebranding their health and safety measures as wellness programmes.

To be effective, say experts, initiatives should go beyond the physical. You need to take a multifaceted approach, giving due weight to emotional and mental wellbeing.

That’s been the approach of Simpson Grierson. In 2014, the national legal firm became New Zealand’s first organisation to be awarded the ‘Rainbow Tick’, a recognition of workplaces that understand, value and welcome sexual and gender diversity. The catalyst was a heartbreaking conversation that Human Resources Director Jo Copeland had with a closeted young gay lawyer at the firm who’d been told that coming out would be a career killer, and who was in a bad way.

It was a “light-bulb moment”, according to Jo, prompting a broader discussion at the firm about anxiety and depression.

Like the veterinary profession, law is full of perfectionist individuals who work long hours under pressure. “Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely [than the general population] to suffer from anxiety and depression,” says Jo. “Most of us know lawyers who have suicided.”

Simpson Grierson has now instituted a wellness programme tailored to the particular risks of the profession. “We have a programme we call ‘Heads Up’ where we run sessions with our partners around mental health, how to recognise the signs of someone in distress and intervene early, what to look for, and how to start a conversation in a non-judgemental way.”

As well, new grads arriving at the firm are briefed on mental health as part of their group induction. “We talk about the stats. We say: ‘For two or three of you in this room [of 25 or so], this will happen to you. When you start feeling like this, talk to us. It’s going to be fine and you’ll be okay’.”

The law is notoriously hard-nosed, but Jo says the firm’s approach is always “compassion first”.

“When we recognise someone is in mental distress we give them a hell of a lot of time and support to get right. We’ve had a couple of employees take a year and a half off work, and kept their jobs open for them. We keep in contact, and do a gradual return to work when they’re ready. We pair them with people who have been through similar experiences so they can see there is hope.”

What has been the result? “The culture here has changed significantly; we’re a much more open environment,” says Jo, who says more employees are now taking advantage of the employee assistance programme or self-referring. “We’re pleased by that.”

Again, none of this is beyond smaller businesses, including veterinary practices.

Internationally, there are plenty of examples of SMEs instituting wellbeing programmes at no huge cost. The common theme is that establishing a healthy culture needs to be done from the ground up, with buy-in from employees.

On RNZ, WorkSafe’s Nicole Rosie stressed that when it comes to health and safety generally, attitude is key. “It has a lot to do with caring about people, looking after people.”

Whatever the scale of the business, the benefits of a focus on wellbeing tend to be similar: reduced absenteeism, fewer workers turning up sick, and a more engaged workforce, resulting in better productivity.

Ultimately, says Nadine Marshall, wellbeing “has a big effect on people’s ability to deliver quality professional decisions and outcomes and to do meaningful work that they enjoy”.

That’s what it comes down to in the end.

“When we spend so much of our lives at work, we need that experience of feeling fed and in balance on all levels – to truly live, rather than just exist.”