Staff and Self-Care in a Bond-Centered Practice
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2001
Carolyn Butler
United States

“Rather than just working to survive, many people are seeking personal fulfillment from their jobs and from their lives.” Building Community: The Human Side of Work(1)

Introduction: The Bond-Centered Practice Approach to Staff and Self-Care

A Bond-Centered Practice is one in which the relationships between people and their companion animals are recognized as significant and are always acknowledged and respected.(2) A Bond-Centered Practice prioritizes relationships—the family-pet bond, the family-pet veterinary team bond, and the bonds between veterinarians and their staffs. A Bond-Centered Practice believes that supporting these relationships is as much a priority as providing high quality medical treatment for animals. This focus on building and healing the relationships that stem from the human-animal bond forms the heart of veterinary practice.

Thus, in a Bond-Centered Practice all veterinary team members are fully prepared to support and respond to the emotional needs created by the bond. The Bond-Centered Practice veterinary team works as a well-functioning unit and the emotions that are associated with stress producing veterinary care are always honored and respected. Because a high quality veterinary team plays such a critical role in a Bond-Centered Practice there are several keys to providing appropriate and ongoing staff and self care. They include: understanding the need for work/life balance, developing family-friendly work environments, prioritizing stress management strategies, and acknowledging the healing nature of purposeful endings for veterinarians and staff.

The Need for Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance refers to a commitment to excel in the work environment while maintaining a fulfilling personal life.(3,4) Employers and employees who adhere to this philosophy balance the expectations of job fulfillment while still participating in the family (however that family may be defined) and in other activities that are personally rewarding. Work/life balance is an expansion of the term “work/family balance” and/or “family-friendly” environments. According to work/life balance experts and researchers, there are several important reasons business owners should work to create work/life balance for their employees. They include staying competitive, improving recruitment and retention, reducing absenteeism, improving morale, improving productivity, gaining free publicity, and investing in the future workforce.(3-7)

Supporting Work/Life Balance with Family Friendly Work Environments

Negotiating work/life balance is a complex issue in our society, and there is no quick fix. However, creating family-friendly work environments is a valuable avenue. In organizations in which family-friendly policies have been enacted, the benefits have proven numerous. Such policies clearly help parents with children, but also benefit employees with varying household units, family forms, and lifestyles. Family-friendly policies help businesses stay competitive with other employers and thus improve both recruitment and retention.(6) Morale and productivity are improved and absenteeism is reduced.(6) Furthermore, organizations with family-friendly policies have also shown increased profits.(4,7)

Flexibility in scheduling and time management has some of the most positive effects of all of the family-friendly policies, namely less distress at work and fewer physical symptoms. Fifty-four percent of people surveyed in a 1995 Gallup poll identified flexible work hours as their number one priority.(8) In another survey, 70% of people earning $30,000 a year or more say they would give up a day’s pay per week in return for a four day work week.(6)

However, family friendly policies are sometimes utilized, and other times eschewed.(9) In some workplace cultures, utilizing family friendly policies bars you from professional advancement. It is important to not only enact family friendly policies, but also to remove the stigma associated with using them. Aspirations for family life do not need to be pitted against self-fulfillment at work. Instead, professional and family work need to be restructured so that all adults can meet work and family ideals.(9)

Listed below are examples of family friendly policies that should be explored by practice owners.(6)

Time management

On-site support

 Flexible hours.

 Compressed weeks (e.g., four 10-hour days).

 Job sharing.

 Alternative work schedules (required to work core hours only).

 Able to bank leave to take sabbaticals or extended leaves.

 Adequate vacation time.


 Personal counseling (employee assistance

 Free work and family seminars.

 Access to ongoing staff development funds.

 Staff/family social functions.

 Discounts on services.

 Assistance with moving, relocation, including spouse

 Work-site neck and back massages.

Family-related resources


 Maternity/paternity leave.

 Investment plans.

 Accommodations for nursing mothers.


 Referral service for child/elder care.

 Pre-tax spending accounts (medical and child care).

 Sick days to care for ill family members.

 Pet insurance .

There are several keys to implementing work/life balance programs in veterinary practices. Experts report that the following list will provide guidance in establishing such programs:(10, 11)

1. Start with a foundation of trust and respect for one another.

2. Attend a seminar on why it is important to offer work/life balance programs and how to begin.

3. Assess the situation by formally surveying employees.

4. Examine the current power structure. Look to create a team environment. Supervisors should act as coaches, mentors, and/or counselors.

5. Supervisors and managers should fully understand why these programs exist. Major decision-makers must provide support for utilization of the programs.

6. Employees must feel they are not jeopardizing their jobs by utilizing the programs.

7. Provide cross training (no one should be indispensable).

8. Formalize policies.

9. Change the way the company defines success.

10. Evaluate the effectiveness of current programs and processes.

11. Support other companies that offer family-friendly policies.

12. Indicate a preference for vendors with work/life balance programs.

Utilizing Stress Management Strategies

All successful stress management plans rest on a foundation of attitude change. Attitude change calls for a solid commitment to self-exploration and to approaching tasks and situation in new ways. It involves a thorough history taking, a discarding of deeply held values and beliefs, and an incorporation of new ways of thinking and behaving.(2) Obviously, this level of commitment to attitude change is often difficult to achieve. It may be helpful to begin by making small adjustments in the way the veterinary team functions. The following list provides a starting point:

 Make sure there is adequate coverage so that all staff have time for meals and personal breaks.

 Create consistent yet flexible scheduling (fewer days with longer hours) and variable schedules for those that prefer it.

 Regularly debrief. Debriefing is a conversation designed to assist the participants of a stressful situation in coping with emotional responses that sometimes surface after intense cases.(12) Debriefing can also be used in regular staff meetings to promote discussion and provide ongoing support.

 Utilize humor to restore perspective, achieve balance, and promote self-care.

 Take a brisk walk outside the hospital. As little as six minutes of aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety.(13)

 Seek support from friends, family, and/or mental health professionals when appropriate.

Creating Purposeful Endings

It is also helpful for veterinarians and their staffs to find ways to let go of the painful emotions that may surround companion animal death. Creating a “purposeful ending” can help to draw closure to a case, day, week, or year.(2) A purposeful ending is a vehicle for honoring efforts, grieving losses, and saying thank you; it can take the form of thought, actions, or events, and can be created in many ways utilizing the creativity and ideas of the veterinary staff. Examples include saying a prayer or offering a few heartfelt words to the pet that has died, donating to an animal-related organization, sending a collective thank you letter to clients, or creating a special “memorial day” to honor special animals who have died in the past year. Ideally, purposeful endings are implemented through the development of ongoing patterns or rituals that signal that one is “letting go” and that an event, a painful time is over. There are no strict guidelines for creating a purposeful ending, however it should be: 1) personally meaningful to the individual; 2) respectful of the other co-participants in the process; and 3) realistic in terms of time and resources.


Veterinary hospitals are highly demanding work environments, and the demands seem to be increasing. When jobs are demanding, it is crucial that they be high quality (offering autonomy, learning and advancement opportunities, and meaning) and supportive (offering flexibility, mentoring, supervisor support, positive co-worker relations, respect, and an absence of discrimination and favoritism). Interestingly, research suggests that the quality of worker’s jobs and the supportiveness of their workplaces are the most powerful predictors of productivity, more so than money or benefits.(14)

Because we live in a society that rewards us for “overwork,” it is difficult to create and stick with a staff and self-care plan. However, if veterinarians make a commitment to the Bond-Centered Practice approach, it is essential that the caring begin internally with the veterinary team. Afterall, if veterinary teams want to effectively care for others, they must start by first caring for themselves.


1.  Manning G, Curtis K, McMillen S, (eds.): Building Community: The Human Side of Work. Cincinnati: Thomson Executive Press, 1996.

2.  Lagoni L, Butler C, Hetts, S. The Human-Animal Bond and Grief. W.B. Saunders Publishing Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1994.

3.  Friedman D. (ed.): The Work-Family Issues and the Work Ethic Institute Conference Proceedings, Linking Work-Family Issues to the Bottom Line. #962, The Conference Board Publishers, New York, 1991.

4.  Friedman D and Johnson A. (eds.): The Work-Family Issues and the Work Ethics Institute Conference Proceedings, Strategies for Promoting the Work-Family Agenda #973. The Conference Board Publishers, New York, 1991.

5.  Friedman T and Brothers T. The Work-Family Issues and the Work Ethic Institute Conference Proceedings, Work-Family Needs: Leading Corporations Respond, #1017. The Conference Board Publishers, New York, 1993.

6.  Kimball G. Twenty-first Century Families: Blueprints to Create Family-Friendly Workplaces, Schools, and Governments. Equality Press, Chico, CA 1998.

7.  Pfeffer J. The Human-Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA, 1998.

8.   Work and Family, Inc. (eds.): Work and Family: A Retrospective. Work and Family Inc., 1995.

9.  Williams J: Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to do About It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

10. Bond JT, Galinsky E, Swanberg JE: The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce. New York: Families and Work Institute, 1998.

11. Bravo E. The Job/Family Challenge: Not for Women Only. John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1995.

12. Zunin LM, Zunin HS: The Art of Condolence. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

13. Petruzzello SJ, Landers DM, Hatfield BD, et al.: A meta-analysis on the anxiety reducing effects of acute and chronic exercise: Outcomes and mechanisms. Sports Medicine 11: 143, 1991.

14. Bond JT, Galinsky E, Swanberg JE: The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce. New York: Families and Work Institute, 1998.

The term ‘Bond-Centered Practice” was created by Laurel Lagoni, M.S., Carolyn Butler M.S., and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., in their text The Human-Animal Bond and Grief (W.B.Saunders, 1994). The concept has been expanded and further developed by the Argus Institute at Colorado State University.

Speaker Information
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Carolyn Butler
United States

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