How VCA’s Social Workers are Supporting Associates’ Mental Well-being

A group gathers in the conference room at VCA South Shore (Weymouth) Animal Hospital—two of the hospital’s staff veterinarians, a certified veterinary technician, a client service Associate and the hospital’s Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Jennifer Scanlon. They’ve come together to discuss a recent case they were all involved with—the euthanasia of a pet the team had gotten to know through frequent visits to the hospital during a battle with illness. They discuss how they’re each feeling and reassure each other the decision—made in partnership with the pet’s owner—was the best decision for the pet.

This type of gathering, referred to as “rainbow rounds,” is a regular occurrence at VCA Weymouth. As a 24-hour emergency and general care hospital, VCA Weymouth Associates are often involved in complex cases that can lead to difficult decisions for clients. It’s a part of the job that can take an emotional toll, which is why social workers like Jennifer have become a more common member of veterinary hospital support teams, particularly at large emergency and critical care hospitals. They’re also there to help teams celebrate all of the positive outcomes, keeping the joy of caring for pets at the center of their work. It’s one of the ways that the veterinary industry is supporting the mental health of its professionals, who are generally more emotionally invested in their jobs than the average worker.

Through their regular support, veterinary social workers help teams build mental resilience, which is essential to coping with stress, avoiding burnout and providing the best possible care to pets. From one-on-one counseling to connecting Associates to internal and external resources, Jennifer and her colleague Natalie Innocenzi share how they’re helping to support the mental health and well-being of VCA Associates.

Building Community

A strong, supportive work environment is the foundation for setting Associates up for success, points out Johanna Baldwin, the director of Associate health and well-being at VCA. That includes focusing on building a sense of community within the hospitals and across VCA.

“Our Diversity Resource Groups are a great way for Associates to network across the organization and work together on initiatives that support VCA’s mission, vision, values and goals,” explains Johanna.

VCA has five Diversity Resource Groups (DRGs) that are helping to build inclusive environments, promote equity and develop diverse leaders. Associates can find community and support within DRG groups, as well as express their identity, further develop allyship skills and make a difference in their working environment.

"DRGs provide an opportunity for Associates to connect with one another, and most importantly, learn more about each other,” says Michael Gamez, manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at VCA. “Connecting with Associates through networks such as DRGs are an impactful way to receive support in the form of mentorship and relationship building. Receiving this type of support can positively impact an Associate’s development, as well as their sense of belonging.”

Jennifer agrees, adding, “When Associates can connect with others who mutually identify with a community as members or allies, they’ll feel more comfortable being their authentic selves at work, which benefits everyone.”

Mental Health Resources at the Ready

VCA’s clinical social workers help familiarize Associates with available resources that support mental health and well-being so they will know how to access tools when they’re needed. All VCA Associates have free access to Lyra, a benefit that connects employees, spouses, and their dependents to mental and emotional health care. Through technology, Associates can access short-term therapy and coaching to self-guided online programs.

In 2023, VCA’s Health and Well-being team developed a self-care toolkit, a popular collection of ideas and coping skills Associates can access anytime to help enhance self esteem, increase confidence in their abilities and combat compassion fatigue.

Having social workers available in six of VCA’s large emergency and critical care hospitals helps alleviate some of the emotional weight of the job for teams. As licensed professionals, social workers understand the depth of the human-animal bond and can guide and comfort clients during difficult times.

Jennifer often connects Associates with external support services, including Project Wag, which offers veterinary professionals free peer-to-peer support facilitated by licensed healthcare professionals, as well as free self-care resources. She also recommends Not One More Vet (NOMV), which offers support for veterinary teams and students struggling with their wellbeing with educational resources, programs, and research.

Bringing Mental Health Support into the Workday Workplace

While having mental health resources you can access in your personal time is great, bringing those tools into the workspace is also important. Some VCA hospitals will open meetings with a group meditation from Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app VCA provides to Associates at no charge. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, VCA’s social workers are trying this out as a regular practice throughout May.

Jennifer says that Associates sometimes make use of Headspace’s breathing exercises and meditations while on break from work. “Sometimes when you’re having a difficult day, it helps to know that you have an app at your fingertips that can walk you through a number of calming exercises,” she says.

VCA’s social workers regularly check in with hospital staff, performing what they call “wellness rounds.” Similar to rainbow rounds, wellness rounds give Associates the opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling. In turn, social workers can offer tools to help them cope with stress and build on successes. Natalie Innocenzi, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at VCA West Lost Angeles Animal Hospital, has found the wellness rounds to be especially helpful for interns.

“Helping interns define emotions and learn to use tools to build mental resilience is as important as anything else they’ll learn during their training,” says Natalie. In addition to including interns in wellness rounds, Natalie has developed educational training sessions specifically for interns addressing topics such as imposter syndrome, mindfulness, compassion fatigue and managing high-emotion interactions with clients.

Mental Health Training Sessions

To extend their reach and support of VCA Associates, the clinical social work team at VCA has developed online training sessions and guides that teach essential skills for mental well-being. An especially popular session titled, “Cultivating Emotional Balance in the Workplace” helps Associates learn how to name their emotions and avoid “thinking traps,” which are automatic thoughts and assumptions that can distort one’s interpretation of a situation. The session offers strategies to focus on those thoughts in order to change negative mindsets.

Jennifer and Natalie created a guide to help Associates identify when a client is experiencing a mental health crisis and how to respond.

“It’s incredibly rewarding when an Associate tells me that they successfully put a strategy I taught them into practice, such as helping a client through a panic attack,” says Natalie. She notes that the strategies she teaches help Associates not only to manage difficult situations, but also to check in on themselves and their own feelings as well to make sure they’re ready to take on their next case.

Learn More

VCA is committed to taking care of the future of veterinary medicine by offering resources that support our Associates’ mental resilience. Learn more about VCA’s mental health resources.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.