Q&A With Makenzie Peterson
Why are wellbeing programs important in modern organizations and why are they especially important in health professions like ours?
Historically, wellbeing programs have been utilized by organizations to help increase employee engagement and reduce health insurance claims and absenteeism. These wellbeing programs also generally focused only on incentivizing physical health initiatives to achieve their goals. Within the past decade, more organizations have been expanding their understanding of wellbeing and the various dimensions that impact employees and students within higher education. Within academic veterinary medicine, we’ve expanded to include more aspects of wellbeing, particularly mental health and a sense of belonging, and also striving to support all members of the academic community. Building a thriving profession requires that we continually explore and evaluate every aspect of how we train and develop our professionals during their education and beyond. Teaching students about personal and community wellbeing will impact how they interact with themselves and others throughout their careers. We want all members of the veterinary medicine profession to be active contributors for as long as they want to be, not for as long as they can endure.
Are other health education professions taking similar steps in this area, and are there evidence-based approaches?
Veterinary medicine is not alone in wanting to improve wellbeing among our communities. Many of the health professions are navigating the same challenges of higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation than the general population, and AAVMC is working with them to collaboratively elevate the wellbeing of the health professions as a whole. There are evidence-based approaches to improving individual and community wellbeing collectively that go far beyond what people usually think wellbeing initiatives are; yoga classes and mindfulness meditation phone apps. Although yoga and mindfulness meditation are wonderful activities, they tend to only be beneficial on a micro level and don’t tend to generate the systemic changes needed to create lasting community-wide benefits. Meeting the diverse needs of individuals and overall member institutions requires a multi systems-level approach. At AAVMC, we offer tools and guidance to help member institutions assess functioning at micro, mezzo, and macro-levels, in order to create environments that optimize wellbeing. This is achieved through a preventative, community-based approach aimed at supporting all members of the veterinary education community, including students, staff, residents/interns, and faculty.
You’ve been with us during an especially important and historic period. Any thoughts regarding the benefits of program introduction during this time?
I don’t view it so much as introducing a new initiative, but as announcing that we will be amplifying this initiative with our members. With 2020 bringing COVID, national unrest, and an election year, it has all culminated in a massive tidal wave of change – whether we welcome the changes or not. This has contributed to many members feeling the need to pull back, think strategically about the changes they need to make, and then decisively channel those efforts to propel them forward like drawing an arrow with a bow. AAVMC will be focusing its wellbeing efforts on providing tools and guidance to our members that will help expand their capacity to make positive wellbeing impacts on a larger, organizational scale.
How would you describe the approach you are taking to this new role at AAVMC?
Beginning my new role during the onset of a global pandemic created an urgency to provide subject-matter expertise and relevant resources while also developing the strategic wellbeing plan for AAVMC. Several of the current wellbeing projects that we’re working on involve forming working groups, securing corporate sponsorship for continued growth and enhanced impact, and looking at wellbeing over the lifespan of academic veterinary medicine – from prior to students coming to our member institutions, all the way past graduation, and as interns, residents, and faculty. One of our current programs focuses heavily on clinician wellbeing, and will begin with assessing the wellbeing of our interns and residents this fall to develop organizational change initiatives.
What kind of support can you provide for our member institutions?
Because wellbeing looks different for every community, AAVMC hopes to empower our member institutions by working collaboratively with them to provide guidance and resources to fit their needs while striving to achieve AAVMC’s institutional wellbeing benchmarks. I can work with member institution representatives (Deans, Associate Deans, Academic Veterinary Wellbeing Professionals) to help identify and prioritize institutional wellbeing needs and goals and provide outreach and education material. Member institutions can also access AAVMC’s knowledge library of wellbeing resources. I have also engaged in providing talks/workshops at no additional cost to our members and also discussing job descriptions with members who are creating new roles that focus on supporting wellbeing on a systemic level.
What do you think are the most important things our member institutions can do to make the biggest impact in this area?
I always encourage members to avoid being distracted by the symptoms of a problem – work to address the root cause. It can also be very tempting to do what a student group or employee group is requesting of leadership – hire a new XYZ person or provide yoga classes for employees – but both of these things end up being fruitless solutions if we don’t fully know what problem these solutions are specifically fixing. For example, providing teaching hospital employees with a yoga class when they barely have time to have a 15-minute lunch break is not a great solution. Focus on what the proposed solution is trying to address (body movement, stress reduction) and then brainstorm ideas of how to achieve that in their work environment. You may find that offering flexible work schedules or self-guided outdoor walking paths may be more beneficial to an employee’s daily experience at work.
In the past, I was once told that I “focus too much on problems” but ultimately, we must better understand the root causes of problems in order to identify effective, long lasting, precision solutions. Throwing a variety of solutions at a problem and hoping one fixes it is not a strategic approach. It can be tempting to jump to surface solutions too quickly (we enjoy fixing things and it can be gratifying to feel that a course of action has been quickly decided) but then we may find it difficult to mentally deviate from these solutions when the data reveals another path – we need to be more “solution agnostic” when it comes to tailoring solutions to our community’s wellbeing needs and look to our data. I would strongly recommend members utilize design-thinking approaches when generating solutions for organizational wellbeing concerns.
Don’t look at only individual-level interventions, look at teams and communities and systems-level interventions that can have a wider impact. Members can look beyond their students and consider the wellbeing of all members of your academic community. The wellbeing of your interns, residents, staff, and faculty is incredibly impactful on the student experience and on retaining talent that positively contributes to your organizational wellbeing culture.
Determine your assessment metrics, adjust as needed but swiftly, and then be consistent in your reoccurring evaluation to assess the impact of your wellbeing program. In looking at your initiatives and internal wellbeing-related data, consider being open about your perceived failures as well as your successes. Honestly, I don’t think that we can view our efforts as failures unless we give up trying. If something didn’t work, regroup, debrief, and identify lessons learned and how they will impact current or future projects. Practice organizational resilience and determine what you can learn from the projects that don’t seem to thrive – and don’t be afraid to be honest with yourselves. In fact, that capacity for constructive honesty is a hallmark of a solid organization.
Our members’ wellbeing initiatives should be based around a strong, positive community identity/culture, knowing that their culture will determine the success of all their initiatives. Some organizational cultures evolve and some stay the same. AAVMC is here to meet our members where they are in the process and help them achieve success without judgment.
Looking forward two or three years, how would you define success with our wellbeing initiative?
That, in general, institutions not view wellbeing and DEI as add-ons or put them in competition with each other for resources and staffing, that there are concrete and indisputable budget lines associated with their efforts, and that they are considered crucial and foundational concepts in the development of all initiatives. Cultural integration of wellbeing at the member level will be a key factor for success.
That everyone recognizes what qualifies an individual to provide mental health services or develop and implement evidence-based wellbeing initiatives, and that it’s understood that wellbeing has rigorous and scholarly underpinnings despite what we may see in the media. In academic medicine, we’d expect no less than for our clinicians to be respected for their animal medicine expertise that they’ve worked so hard to build through formal educational training and work experience – when it comes to animal health, they are the experts. A layperson taking a weekend certificate course on animal first aid is not a substitute for years of rigorous veterinary training.
When organizations discuss mental health and wellbeing initiatives, this knowledge requires the same deference for our wellbeing professionals who also have received graduate level training and have years (to decades) of work experience in the field – they are your wellbeing subject-matter experts.