Why investing in your clinic team’s wellbeing makes financial sense

While many people consider the ethical reasons for improving the wellbeing of your veterinary team, there are also huge financial considerations for your practice too. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has shown that investing in the wellbeing of employees by providing a supportive environment can positively influence the bottom line, estimating every £1 invested in occupational health and safety generates a return of £2.20.

While we’re responsible for our own wellbeing, veterinary leaders must take some responsibility by ensuring a positive environment and providing the tools for employees to help themselves. The charity, MIND, suggests that better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year.

Can stress be good?

When people experience the right amount of pressure, they often perform brilliantly. However, if there's too much or too little pressure, performance can suffer. Peter Nixon’s Human Function Curve states that in the drone zone (shown below), we may be bored and perform poorly. The sweet spot in the middle - shown by the white circle - is where we experience eustress (positive pressure), raising performance by being ‘in the zone’. When we reach the fatigue zone, we could be experiencing chronic stress and poor wellbeing. Our performance is therefore significantly impeded.

stress graph

Workplace 'burn-out' has become such a serious issue it’s officially listed by the WHO as an 'occupational syndrome'. Rates of burnout are reportedly high in the veterinary profession, which is concerning as well as financially costly.

An effective wellbeing strategy aims to keep employees in the sweet spot, where performance and motivation are high. A win-win for both employee and employer.

The effect of poor wellbeing on absence

It’s estimated that 1 in 6 workers experience depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress at any one time. We also know that poor wellbeing also contributes to physical conditions, such as musculoskeletal, heart and gastrointestinal problems, but this link is often not made within absence statistics.

The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019/20 was 828,000, accounting for 17.9 million days of lost work, more than any other cause, and it’s increasing. If you think post-covid things will improve, think again. A review paper found that COVID-19 did not appear to be the main driver of changes seen in the latest year’s data, either.

As such, we can see that 1 in 5 people take a day off due to stress. Importantly, 90% of those individuals cited a different reason for their absence to their employer - meaning the true impact of stress could be considerably underestimated. Understandable given 15% of employees who disclosed mental health issues to their line manager reported being disciplined, dismissed or demoted. Only 24% of managers have received training in this area, leaving a gap in the skills needed to make positive change.

Taking simple steps in management of mental health and wellbeing should enable employers to reduce these costs.

These figures relate to the general population, so it’s not just a veterinary issue. However, it’s well documented that stress, depression or anxiety are more prevalent in public service industries, in professional occupations like ours, and in females (who occupy the majority of the veterinary workforce). In fact, an RCVS survey of veterinarians found that almost 90% reported that veterinary work is stressful.

Absence: the tip of the iceberg

Many companies focus on absence, a crude way of measuring the impact of stress and wellbeing on performance. In the 2019 CIPD survey, 86% of people said they had observed presenteeism (working while unwell), accounting for 2 times more losses than absences. ‘Leaveism’, such as people using annual leave to work, is a growing problem. More than two-thirds of respondents reported that leaveism occurred in their organisation over the last year. Only around a quarter of respondents that experienced presenteeism and leavism say their organisation worked to discourage it (2016 CIPD survey).

Within our profession there’s a strong culture of ‘soldiering on’ through illness. It’s often seen as a badge of honour. As presenteeism is estimated to cost £2.50, compared to £1 for absenteeism, within the UK workforce, it’s something that needs tackling. It reduces productivity, means employees take longer to recover from illnesses, infect others, make mistakes, as well as increasing stress levels within teams. Mistakes cause damage to the clients and patients we aim to help, and to practice reputation and public image.

The Centre for Mental Health has calculated that the total cost to employers is estimated at nearly £26 billion each year due to sickness, presenteeism and increased turnover, equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce.

Final thoughts

Financial impacts around wellbeing are wide ranging and many beyond the scope of a single blog. Other examples include litigation and reputation damage from inadequate mental health safeguards, effects on retention and recruitment, and employee commitment.

Although there are no laws specifically relating to stress at work, various pieces of legislation relate to stress, and the law governing stress has also evolved from case law. Legal claims have huge financial and reputational repercussions. Our legal system and society look favourably on prevention. A robust wellbeing strategy offers some legal protection. Prevention of legal cases is also paramount to reduce costly reputational damage.

We’re experiencing a recruitment crisis in our profession which has its own costs. A study by MIND shows that 60% of employees would feel more motivated and likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer took action to support mental wellbeing.

Companies should recognise the link between employee wellbeing and engagement. Disengaged employees are less productive, absent in higher numbers, and more likely to leave. A considered health and wellbeing strategy shows an employer cares about, and values, its staff and will improve engagement.

Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD:

‘A reactive, ad hoc approach to well-being is not enough. If employers want to build a workforce that is happy, healthy and productive, the well-being agenda needs to be a priority and employee well-being practices must be integrated in the organisation’s day-to-day operations.’

One of the 6 key ambitions set out for 2030 by the vet futures project by BVA and RCVS is that all members of the veterinary team are confident, resilient, happy, healthy, and well-supported. Their top recommendation being to deliver a coordinated, well-funded and evidence-based approach to mental health and wellbeing for the veterinary team. Research shows less than half of companies have a defined health and wellbeing strategy in place. An organisation’s greatest asset is its people, and a wellbeing strategy is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but vital.

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