Thought Leadership Series: Health and Wellness in the Veterinary Industry

Posted by Molly Falconer on January 14, 2021

The pandemic, coupled with the rise in pet ownership and an increased client list, has resulted in employee burnout at many veterinary hospitals. We spoke with Karlene Belyea, VP of Wellness at Mission Veterinary Partners, to learn about her background and the inner workings of a company that strives to create a culture where employees feel appreciated, respected, and balanced.

Can you tell us how you got started in your field? Did anything in particular draw you to the veterinary industry?

Karlene: I started in the nonprofit world working with nurses. When I heard the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) was looking for a new CEO, I was excited to apply because I’m passionate about animals and think veterinarians are amazing. I loved that role and ended up staying for 15 years. Through that role, I spent a lot of time traveling across Michigan and getting to know veterinarians and their teams. One of my member veterinarians reached out about working for Mission Veterinary Partners (MVP) as their Chief Culture Officer. I was intrigued because at the time I was working with AVMA, AAHA and many other associations, speaking on topics like communication, well-being, leadership and culture. Since MVP was dedicated to becoming the employer of choice in veterinary medicine, with a focus on creating positive cultures and improving wellness, it was a great fit for me.

Karlene Belyea, VP of Wellness at Mission Veterinary Partners.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Karlene: My favorite part is connecting with veterinary teams. Prior to COVID, I spent a lot of time traveling to and working with different veterinary practices. Working in a veterinary practice is stressful, and one of the ways we can help is by teaching team members communication skills to improve interactions with clients and coworkers. Another way we can help is by promoting and sharing individual wellness and self-care practices to decrease stress. These are the kinds of tools I share working with practices through presentations and coaching. I really enjoy connecting with our teams and helping them learn new techniques that they can use.

Your role has changed slightly since COVID when Mission put you directly in charge of wellness rather than culture. What did this mean for your role and focus, and why did Mission take that crucial step?

Karlene: Earlier this year as the Culture Officer I was trying to launch wellness champions in each of our practices. My goal was to recruit and train a designated wellness champion for each practice, but COVID hit and the initiative had to be put on hold. I was briefly furloughed and when MVP brought me back, they knew we needed to focus heavily on wellness, since everyone was struggling. Consequently, they changed my focus to wellness. Veterinary teams are going through a lot right now – stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, burnout and being out of their comfort zones. They’re experiencing trauma and suppressing emotions at work to try to get through the day. As I connect with our teams, I remind them to process the trauma and let out those emotions, which might mean having a good cry when you get home or even screaming into a pillow. Promoting wellness right now is so important, especially in veterinary medicine where they need it now more than ever.

Why is wellness so important for a company to care about?

Karlene: Our young people are smarter than we were in terms of what they want out of their work. Older generations were told to get a job, be grateful for it and work as many hours as you can to show dedication. Our younger people really value and understand the importance of having better work/life balance. They don’t want to work 60+ hour weeks. As a company or veterinary practice, in order to attract and retain new talent, you’re going to have to pay attention to creating a culture that is positive and promotes good well-being. Wellness is important across every industry, but it is particularly important in veterinary medicine.

Would you give any advice to someone looking to enter the field on the importance of culture or wellness?

Karlene: For veterinarians, it’s a tough industry, and it’s getting harder to attract both veterinarians and veterinary technicians to the profession. There are a lot of people who are passionate about animals, and I hope they follow their dreams to work with animals. I would encourage them however, to begin valuing wellness and self-care as a student, because we need to put ourselves first and sometimes be that student who says, “Ok, I’m going to take some time out for myself to take a walk or play with my dog.” Whatever you can do that is going to help your mental wellness and make you feel better is so important as a student.

What advice would you give to veterinary practices that are looking to establish an initial wellness program, who don’t necessarily have someone dedicated to wellness such as yourself?

Karlene: The first thing I would say is that it’s important to have an open dialogue with your team. The more you can get together as a team with meetings, brief huddles or even one-on-ones to share what you’re going through the better. Ask questions that are positive like, “What are we grateful for this year?” Gratitude helps reset the brain to be more positive. When you get veterinary teams together and start talking about gratitude, inevitably someone will say they’re grateful for their team members and then tears sometimes flow and it’s a beautiful moment. If a practice is able to establish a wellness champion, it can be very beneficial. AVMA has a publication called Countdown to Wellness that’s excellent. It gives you step-by-step information on how to create a wellness champion and suggestions for activities to do with your team.

In the months and years ahead, do you see any lingering mental health issues resulting from the pandemic due to burnout and stress? How should practices be looking out for and preparing for this?

Karlene: What I’ve seen in the healthcare industry is that people are experiencing mental and emotional trauma. When people repress these negative emotions, the emotions start to build up. What we’re finding in the health care industry is that if people are keeping all of that inside, 4-6 months down the line they are likely to have a mental breakdown, become physically ill, or wake up in the morning and just can’t get out of bed. This is why it is so important to remind people to process the trauma by talking to someone, whether it’s a licensed counselor or a trusted friend. Be sure to take advantage of any work benefits offered to you like an Employee Assistance Program or any mental health benefits included with your healthcare insurance. These can be incredibly helpful.

About Karlene Belyea
Karlene’s passion is speaking to groups about how to improve communications, culture and well-being in the workplace. She is a certified Everything DiSC® Trainer and presents sessions on behavioral styles, generational differences, body language, leadership and influence, creating positive and productive work cultures, wellness, work/life integration, finding happiness and brain training/neuroscience. Karlene focuses on how to work together more effectively through understanding and appreciating the differences in people, while working to improve communications, team building, customer service and conflict resolution.