Episode 57

Battle lines: Identifying conflict & Stress at Work

War and Peace in the Workplace Series See All Episodes »

In today’s demanding world, conflict is inevitable. With so many clashing personalities, opinions, and values among clients, colleagues, family members, and random strangers on the street, it’s impossible to avoid strife. But you can control how you respond to it.

The first step is learning how to identify festering conflict. The next step is becoming aware of your default defense mechanisms and putting in place healthy habits for defeating it. In doing so, you’ll become more resilient and less stressed, both at work and at home.

Sounds straightforward, right? It may be simple, but it definitely isn’t easy.

In this episode, we’re kicking off a new two-part series on conflict and stress in the workplace. Along with our human resources expert, Maura Stevenson, we discuss the seemingly never-ending cycle of stress and conflict, talk about why both are necessary, and explore ways to break that cycle.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Episode Guest


Maura Stevenson

M.A., Ph.D.

Maura is the chief human resources officer at MedVet in Worthington, Ohio. Her job includes overseeing talent management, compensation and benefits, leadership and employee development, and organizational development.
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Episode Sponsor

Roo is changing the way veterinary relief works by empowering animal healthcare professionals with flexibility, work-life balance and better outcomes for their clients and pets. Learn More »

Episode Transcript

Mia Cunningham: Today we’re pleased to welcome Maura Stevenson to the show. Maura is the chief human resource officer at MedVet, a role that she has held since 2017. Maura oversees all aspects of the employee experience, including talent management, compensation and benefits, organizational development, as well as leadership and employee development. And we invited Maura today to chat with us a little bit about reducing workplace stress and improving prioritization in the workplace and in life. Hi, Maura. Welcome to the show.

Maura Stevenson: Thank you. Glad to be here. 

Krysten Bennett: Let’s go ahead and jump in, starting with the basics. By now, we know that overall wellness is more than just your physical health. Although that is a big part of wellness, it is only a slice of the whole pie. Can you break down for us the other components of wellbeing and kind of explain how they all work together? 

MS: We look at wellbeing at MedVet in three categories. So the first is personal wellbeing, which is mental, physical and emotional. I think that’s often where people go, is to personal wellbeing. Then there’s financial wellbeing, and we often don’t talk about that. But the financial wellbeing is important. That can also come down to having an unexpected financial hardship. And when we think about diversity, inclusion, and belonging, we know that financial hardship tends to impact our community of color more. So, by making sure that we are supporting someone who loses a car and can’t get to work, we’re hoping that we’ll help those folks who have the most vulnerability be able to stay employed and manage some of that stress. The last category of well being is workplace wellbeing. What do I mean about that? I feel like this is the one that we’re focusing more on because it’s how we support our people. Wellbeing really is multifaceted and it’s never done. 

KB: So here we are in late 2022, and we’ve all been dealing with pandemic-related stress for two-plus years. This kind of extended stress can cause all sorts of problems physically, mentally, emotionally, and in every other way possible. How are we seeing this manifest on a global scale? 

MS: When you look at global data, looking at major depressive disorder and suicide, those two are increasing globally across all age cohorts, and they’re increasing the fastest for—ready?— young women. That’s our people.

KB: Right, and so with a profession that’s comprised mostly of women, this is obviously a problem that we really need to get under control. So let’s bring it closer to home and hone in on that third part of wellness and the reason that you’re here with us today. Stress in the workplace. This in and of itself is a huge topic that we could talk about for days. 

MS: This subject, it’s never ending. We can’t do enough, but we also can’t fix it for folks. We provide resources and support and then there is some personal accountability, but there’s also some accountability in the kind of workplace we help create. 

KB: As the chief human resources officer at MedVet, I imagine that’s something that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. What kinds of stress and conflict are you seeing in your staff? Has that changed at all over the past couple of years as we deal with the effects of long-term stress from the pandemic? 

MS: Well, I think our context, particularly within the veterinary profession, plays a role. So MedVet—probably like many of the practices where your listeners work—we’ve grown a lot with the 11.6 million, I think it is, new pets. And so we have a lot of new people who maybe never worked with us before the pandemic. And I think having all those new people and having people facing some of their own life stressors, what I’ve noticed is just fuses are a bit shorter. I don’t think the type of conflict has changed. Conflict tends to be pretty constant. But I think for a lot of us it’s when that one more thing hits, do we react differently because of what we’ve been faced with and are dealing with? And I think there are some things that are pretty unique to the profession in terms of the growth that we have experienced. 

KB: So let’s dig into that a little bit. Can you give some examples of workplace wellbeing and what practices can do to improve it for their staff? 

MS: All of our folks came in to impact lives of pets and their loving families, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that they have the time and energy to do that. People did not go into the veterinary profession to do medical records, and there’s a lot of learnings from human healthcare and how we can be even better in trying to pull some of those administrative things away from our direct caregiver teams. So it’s those things that we own, as more senior leaders, of making the work have as little friction as possible. Are we listening to what those caregivers on the floor are telling us and trying to help them? Are we doing things to make medical records easier? If a process is stupid and takes too long, are we fixing it? Our hourly caregivers can clock in and out on their phone. That’s convenient. But that can also come down to, am I giving you paid time off, including paid sick time? We are requiring our folks to take lunch breaks. They pushed back a lot at the beginning but then they were like, this is amazing. Am I matching your 401(K) and having you think about your retirement? And these are hard things because our practices don’t always have the money to do that. 

MC: So given that, what are some of the telltale signs that conflict is kind of on the horizon? 

MS: Well, I think I’m less worried about emerging conflict and I’m more worried about festering conflict. So, think about those patients you get in. If I’m doing my well pet exams, if I’m keeping up with my treatments, if I bring my pet in right when I notice something weird, chances are it’s much easier to treat than if I let something go and it becomes a festering wound.

I think with conflict, once it’s kind of gotten stuck, if it hasn’t been addressed, you may see a couple of things in your practice. One of those things might be people talking about other people, not to other people. That’s an important thing to look at. If that’s going on, that’s not healthy, and you have festering conflict. 

We’ll also sometimes see people who come and they bring an issue and they’re telling themselves this whole story in their head. We all tell ourselves stories, like: Well, he cut me off because he’s an evil person—instead of he cut me off, because maybe he’s taking the dog to MedVet. And if that story does not assume positive intent, then you’ve probably got something festering that needs to be addressed. And I think the other piece, when we think about what I consider healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict—a lot of times too, you’ll see people focusing on the person, not the problem. 

So I really think those pieces of, are you starting to see talking about instead of talking to our people, starting to make up stories in their head that are not based on facts. And then that piece around focusing on the person rather than the problem, that’s when you have something that needs to be addressed, because it’s not going to get better. 

KB: Do you have any advice for people who may not react well to conflict and stress and how they can learn to be aware of it and kind of change the way they respond? 

MS: Well, I think you said a couple of important things. First, it starts with self-awareness. Do I have self-awareness of my typical way I handle conflict? Because we all tend to have default responses, right? And then, am I aware of other ways that I could handle that conflict, and can I build the skills and have the discipline to, in certain situations, manage that a different way? 

So maybe you’re someone who: you’re blunt, you’re direct, you want to deal with things in the moment. That could be an extreme that’s difficult for the team. I worked in New York City for part of my career. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m polite. But New York City, you have to be pretty direct, and that’s how conflict is handled. 

Or, if you’re someone who it’s very difficult for you emotionally (to handle conflict), maybe you’re not going to do it right in the moment. You can’t let it linger, but you can take a step back, and you can think about how you frame up that conversation, right? 

So, you want to focus on the facts—not the emotion. You want to share your facts with that other person, and so you might tee it up of: “I need to talk to you about something, and I want you to know it’s really hard for me. It may not go just quite right, but I’d ask for you to give me a little grace, because this is really important, and I want to make sure that we’re working on it together.” Ideally what you want to do is make it about the problem, not about the people. 

And I think for some of us, you have to experiment with some of those new behaviors. Sometimes it will go well, and sometimes it won’t. But what you’re not going to change is who you are. What you’re going to work on doing is putting some new behaviors in place that will allow you to be your best self. 

And if you know conflict is not something you’re good at, right, you think about, oh I have to have this crucial conversation and I’m dreading it. Guess what? I dread them. We all dread them. But the more prepared you are, the better it will go, because those conversations never go the way we think, right? I might say, “You have been late for your shift four times over the past two weeks. This is something that we can’t do, because the night time team wants to make sure we understand who came in overnight, and by you not being there, you’re letting the team down.” We actually had a situation where that conversation was had with a caregiver, and they let us know that they had a relative die of COVID. They had adopted their two children, and they were having issues dealing with the logistics of school drop offs. So, what do we do in that case? We got curious. We adjusted their schedule, and they got a cash grant to help them make sure they could take care of their new family. 

Sometimes we have trouble with conflict because we’ve let our emotions get the better of us, and we’ve made up a story in our head. We’ve ascribed intent and motive. So, assume positive intent and get curious. 

You have to practice and try those skills and prepare. Preparation will make you feel better about it, because then when the conversation goes sideways—as they inevitably do—you’ll kind of know what you wanted to say so you can make those calls in the middle of the discussion, where you might say, “Hey, you know what? I’m just going to need to step away, and I’m going to need to come back another time.” Or you might need to say, “I think you need to step away, and we need to come back another time, because I’d really like to keep this focused on the solution and I want you to think about it. Let’s come back maybe when emotions aren’t running quite as high.” 

So I think some of it is, you just have to go and you have to do it. No one loves conflict, except maybe litigators.

KB: Well, they get paid to love it, right? 

MS: Absolutely. And we’re delighted that they exist in the world, but most of us would not want to be them. 

MC: Have you heard of the term quiet quitting? 

MS: Oh, absolutely. The concept of quiet quitting is doing the minimum to get by. I would call them disengaged. They quit, but forgot to tell you. It is not ensuring that you’re recharging and having enough energy. I am not the kind of person who would ever quiet quit, and I don’t want them on my team. Go get a different job. 

I like to know that I’m making a difference, and it’s my accountability and my responsibility to make sure that I’m managing those boundaries. And that requires me to have conflict conversations. Because ultimately, if you’re doing the minimum to get by, you will be asked to go get a job somewhere else. 

KB: Why do you think that is? What’s going on that’s causing people to quiet quit more frequently? 

MS: People go through cycles. I think especially over the pandemic, we all had our moments, and so it was a lot for us to make sure that we could continue to provide life-saving care, especially with new pets; continue to support our caregivers; and also contribute to public health in the ways that our profession needed to do by making some difficult choices. We know that people want to be a part of something bigger. We know that they want to do work that’s meaningful, and we know that they want to be fairly rewarded for that, which is the hardest one to manage. When you look at human motivation, people aren’t motivated by doing as little to get by as possible. I once had a boring job, and I only lasted 18 months and then I left, because there wasn’t enough. 

I think, especially in the veterinary profession, none of you came into the profession to do the minimum. That’s not what we do for the pets that we are privileged to provide care to. But everything’s kind of a gradient. It’s figuring out, how do I do what I need to do, so I can be successful in work and in life. I think quiet quitting kind of embraces the tyranny of or and misses the beauty of and—because I do think it’s an and

KB: So it sounds to me like quiet quitting is one example of what could happen if a person gets so overwhelmed with stress that they just don’t know how to handle it. They just kind of mentally check out. So what are some things we can do to prevent ourselves from getting so stressed out that we just give up? 

MS: Well, first, I think I’d kind of take a step back. When I say stress, you often have like a negative, visceral reaction. But stress in and of itself is not positive or negative. Stress is neutral. If you look at those lists of the most stressful life events, what’s up there? Getting married, having a baby, getting a new job, moving to a new location. Those are all exciting, wonderful things. So they’re kind of good stress. 

We as humans need to have a certain level of stress in order for us to perform optimally. When we get in trouble is when we have that chronic, ongoing stress. As humans, our bodies are designed for oscillation. So you need stress, but you also need recovery. And so I think the key thing I would offer your listeners is intentional recovery. What does that even mean? I don’t have time to go on a two-week vacation.

So let’s talk about what that looks like, kind of short-term and then more medium-term. Think about tennis players. If you’ve ever watched really good tennis players, between points, they tend to do something. They might spin their racket a certain way, or they might do something with their hat, or they might walk a certain way. What they have built in are recovery routines. They’re not long. They don’t have to meditate for 20 minutes between sets. 

Often, managing your energy and managing your stress feels really big. For us, one of the first things we can do is we can build in recovery routines. So after a really hard case or between patients, maybe you just do a circle around the treatment area. Maybe you step away and take just a couple of deep breaths. For me, if I’ve just come up a really difficult meeting, I will walk all the way down the other hall to the ladies room, get a drink of water, and come back. Or I may walk to the Keurig machine that’s on the complete other side of the building and get something there, typically decaf, and come back. It takes less than a minute, and you can kind of reset your body because, again, our bodies are designed for stress and recovery, ideally in 90-minute segments. 

The other thing for teams to think about is: What is their leaving routine? When they get ready to leave the practice, at the end of the night or in the morning, depending on their shift, we want them to be able to step away. Do they have some type of a routine (before they go home), where they hang their jacket in a certain place; or they go to their locker, pause for a moment, and think about what went well for the day. Then they drive home and they’re going to transition when they’re driving home. When I go home, I’m always the last one home at my house. What we’ve kind of contracted on is that nobody hits me with anything until I’ve gone upstairs and changed my clothes. That’s my recovery routine. That’s what I’ve built in. And that’s super simple. They can wait five minutes to ask me a question or hit me with something, because inevitably, when you walk in the door, people want to hit you with something. The dog comes up, because the dog can’t wait. 

But what is your recovery routine, so that you can be in the right headspace and have your focus on what you’re doing. Building in that recovery is so important, because often we ignore those signals. And so when our bodies have kind of reached capacity, we override our need for recovery. And how do we do that? Sugar. Caffeine. We’re just going to muscle through it. And at some point that is going to deplete us, and that’s when we get this long-term chronic stress. 

MC: Dr. Stevenson, at some point, I think we’ve all been in a position where we feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day. And not only that, our energy level gets depleted. Do you have any tips on how we could maximize what energy we have left at the end of the day? 

MS: We know that time is finite. Energy is not. So, managing your energy starts with managing your physical energy. We know that the things we hear that are good for health: Eating enough protein, especially early in the day. Managing your caffeine. Caffeine can be very good for performance—if you use it correctly. Making sure you get enough sleep. Sleep is important to long-term recovery. So if you’re getting woken up every couple of nights, you guys need to look at your on-call schedule and figure out, am I needed to make those decisions? Could someone else make those decisions? Could we rotate those decisions? The exercise—that’s about creating long-term resilience.

Your body is a fine machine, and you have to keep it tuned up. You wouldn’t use an ultrasound that’s broken. You wouldn’t use an X-ray machine that’s not really working or that’s not safe. You need to make sure that your equipment, your body that you use, that you’re treating it well. 

KB: What do you tell someone who doesn’t want to take that time for themselves because it feels selfish and takes away from patient care? Or even those people who feel like they have so much to do that they really just don’t have time to stop, or they’ll fall behind and it’s just going to make their stress even worse. 

MS: Here’s what I would say. Taking time to exercise isn’t selfish. Your body is a fine machine, and you have to keep it tuned up. You wouldn’t use an ultrasound that’s broken. You wouldn’t use an X-ray machine that’s not really working or that’s not safe. You need to make sure that your equipment, your body that you use, that you’re treating it well. 

Long term and short term, we know those core things. But I want to reframe it for your listeners as: It’s not that I’m bad because I’m not eating well, or I’m eating a chocolate bar instead of a protein bar. Think of it instead like this: How do I fuel my machine so that I can handle stress? Stress is inevitable. It is, in fact, helpful under the right cases. I know that’s super controversial sounding, but you know some people who are pressure prompted. When there’s a deadline, they can do it.

The issue is if their body is always in that fight-or-flight and producing that cortisol. We’re not running from the bears anymore. At least most of us aren’t; probably some of your people in exotics might be running from the bears. But most of us are not running from the bears anymore. So we need to help our bodies have that down time so they can cycle back up. 

And then there’s the emotional part of recovery. Am I taking those minutes to truly disconnect? Am I taking real vacations? And you don’t have to leave your phone at home; I can’t do that. I check email twice a day when I’m on vacation. That’s what I need to do. And if it’s urgent, I need you to text me. But it better be urgent. 

So, I think it’s managing those pieces, and I think it’s also about making peace with what you’re not doing.

KB: That’s all the time we have today, but we’ll pick up the conversation on our next episode in two weeks. Join us then as we talk about establishing healthy coping habits, practical solutions for managing stress, and ways to approach conflict with your colleagues—without making it worse.

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