Veterinary wellness with Dave Shuey: Community and Culture
Black and white headshot of Dave Shuey
Words by:
Dave Shuey, LMSW, DMA — IndeVets Veterinarian Social Worker

A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that modulates the extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. 
And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. –Peter Wohlleben


A couple of months ago, I met several of my IndeVets coworkers in person in Atlanta to eat, drink, and talk together. We laughed, hugged, and opened up. It occurred to me as I drove the 70 miles from the Atlanta suburbs to my secluded country home in the woods, that in almost any other workplace I’ve ever been, I would have run screaming from the mere idea of an out-of-hours social function with the people with whom I suffered in a stressful environment all day long. The difference was that this evening actually meant something–what? And how was it able to produce that meaning? It turns out that by looking more closely at concepts like community, culture, toxicity, and leadership in the professional sphere we discover profound insight into what really determines the long-term well-being of the individual as well as the organization.


Community and Culture

Like trees, we need togetherness to live, but sometimes where we’re planted can be deadly. For a community to thrive, the culture must allow it. Culture is everything “thought of” by a given community; its attitudes, norms, unconscious reactions, and values.  Stated another way, if community is our social environment and set of relationships, then culture determines the quality of those relationships. The quality of our work relationships can be mutually nourishing, or it can create the worst kind of isolation.


Culture is, therefore, the most important factor in professional mental health.

Workplace culture lives and moves along a spectrum between collaboration and competition, which has been found to be the key parameter for assessing cultural health at all levels of a community (1). How would you characterize the quality of relationship between those few people you see and with whom you directly work every day? Is there a feeling of scarcity, of competing for resources (pay, benefits, time, appointments, supplies and so on), of mistrust and self-preservation? You would expect to see increased gossip and conflict, as well as bad communication in a place like that.

Or do your relationships feel collaborative and supportive, where you feel a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration after a hard case in which every person felt accepted and healthy enough to give their whole talent to the job? This can only happen when a team that trusts each other is supported in all its needs. A collaborative relationship between “the floor” and management and leadership is sustained by the free flow of communication and the giving and receiving of support at every opportunity. In one study (2), even merely informal support from leadership, if it was perceived as genuine, was able to increase employee engagement and the positive feeling of commitment to the job. The job then means more to a person, and one might feel positive anticipation instead of dread about sharing a table with coworkers.


The Fish Rots from the Head

This old Hebrew saying bluntly declares exactly how workplace cultures fall ill and perish. Leadership creates and maintains the cultural environment and resources of the organizational community. Remember that culture is everything “thought of” by a community. In the same way, an organization’s mission, vision, core values, brand promise, and so on are the raw materials of that organization’s culture. A competitive environment of scarcity, conflict, isolation, and despair, or a collaborative one of support, communication, reward, and fulfillment flows directly from the nature of those values. We might engage in some healthy questioning of all our values. Do they favor competition, or collaboration? Are they hopeful phrases artfully framed on a wall, imposing themselves from the outside? Or do they naturally come out in our daily practice from our deeply held beliefs about work? What are those deeply held and mostly unconscious beliefs anyway? The answer to these questions, in veterinary medicine, is found in the relationships, health, and behavior of the caregiving staff, as well as the public’s experience of that care.

Perhaps the deeper question is: do our leaders show humility and acceptance in the face of objective reality? For collaboration to take hold as a guiding principle, leaders need to place the principle of honest engagement with the people of the company, which includes admitting doubt, not knowing, and directly embracing mistakes, above any goal of material success. The more one clings to an ideal of infallible authority and status, the more the culture suffers.


Vulnerability builds trust, which leads to collaboration, which leads to healing.

We often think of leaders as strong, unflappable and invincible. Research in the last two decades concludes that the capacity for leaders to show vulnerability plays a critical role in creating a place where their teams feel safe enough to take risks and share where they are struggling. Author Patrick Lencioni also emphasizes the importance of vulnerability in leadership in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. “Leaders who are willing to admit their mistakes and be vulnerable are more likely to create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their own challenges and learning from each other’s experiences. This, in turn, leads to greater innovation, productivity, and success.”



In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “The whole philosophy of Hell rests on the idea that to be means to be in competition.” I think that being in competition is the opposite of being in collaboration. We’ve seen how the health of a community depends on its thoughts, which create the culture that turns around and shapes the lives of its members. Many articles have been published directly linking the health of culture to the success of the company. “When employers deliver on these expectations, they see more loyal and productive employees, which in turn improves business outcomes and propels company growth. Companies with strong cultures have seen a 4x increase in revenue growth” (3). And while our primary focus is on the practice of medicine, we also know that a clinic must be financially healthy in order for us to deliver the best care. Cultural health is financial health.

Think about your emotional experience of being in veterinary medicine. Where can you spot symptoms of competition or signs of collaboration? Which feels better? Which makes more money? Which makes you feel prouder to have chosen this profession? Which sounds more likely to improve your quality of life? Just maybe, we can at least imagine that collaboration is the answer to those and countless other questions that affect our culture, and that the answer can be trusted.


Things to Try, Things to Ponder:

  • Find trusted peers to talk with about the emotional experience of the job.
  • Seek out opportunities to show vulnerability, especially to those whom you supervise.
  • Value collaboration over competition.
  • Make it OK to give and receive support, however informally, at every opportunity.
  • Ask for and offer help in equal measure.
  • Realize that when things get tense in the treatment area or exam room, it can be traced to a lack of resources.
  • Realize that a toxic workplace creates a desperate need for rest, while reinforcing that attitude that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to rest.
  • Listen to body and mind.
  • Realize that an expression of need is not “being negative.”


Things to Check Out:

  1. AAHA Culture Initiative
  2. Team Well-being Reference Guide
  3. From the Research


Highly Recommended Reading:

FORBES: Culture is a Company’s Single Most Powerful Advantage

Books found on Amazon: