GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT · February 11th, 2021

Elevating Team Culture: 3 Strategies to Boost Engagement In Stressful Times

by Stephanie Garcia


As a 24-hour emergency hospital, Anne Arundel Veterinary Emergency Clinic (AAVEC) provides critical care services to the pets of Annapolis, Maryland. Early in the pandemic, it became clear we would face many new challenges. Emergency visits skyrocketed. We experienced longer wait times and sporadic staff shortages, which amplified stressors among the team. Compassion fatigue increased, morale decreased, and burnout and anxiety were prevalent.

We needed quick, impactful solutions to better care for our roughly 200 team members. To help, we created a culture-focused strategy aimed at boosting morale and personal wellness. The initiative resulted in new team-building events and engagement resources that led to happier, healthier staff and better care for our patients.

Here are the three ways we strengthened our practice culture during stressful times.

1. Boost team morale through celebration and recognition.

When stress is high among doctors and technicians, it can quickly spread to assistants and CSRs. For us, like all hospital teams, we must work together, and short tempers and frustrations were affecting productivity. To improve teamwork, we worked to strengthen bonds and staff appreciation.

One tactic included a new team-building activity every week throughout the fall in the form of our first annual AAVEC Olympic Games. The staff divided into eight teams representing fictional countries (e.g., Pandora) and non-fictional countries (e.g., Djibouti) and competed in a series of veterinary-themed events like our “Blind Elizabethan Collar Building Contest” (blindfolded contestants rushed to assemble dog cones in record time), the “Champion of Cars” (staff tested curbside care skills by matching car emblems with the vehicle names), or “The ‘Poop’ Shoe Path” (teams relay-raced through the yard while trying to avoid piles of cool whip). Groups and individuals were awarded trophies, prizes, and medals, but the connections built during these simple, fun games were the real reward.

Staff members race to assemble the E-collar; Awards shelf for AAVEC’s First Annual Olympic Games

We also focused on enhancing individual recognition. Birthdays, work anniversaries, and other milestones are always big deals, but with most public venues closed, traditional celebrations were scarce. For example, we had staff members who earned degrees in 2020. Since one of our graduates didn’t have a ceremony, we held our own — complete with cap, gown, and hand-made leis (she loves Hawaii). The effort moved her to tears – it was something a family would do. Showing how much we value our staff means treating them like a family would.

Of course, appreciation doesn’t always require awards or celebrations. Our most popular initiative by far required the least amount of coordination. The AAVEC Appreciation Wall asks staff to spread kindness by posting sticky notes that share gratitude for a fellow teammate’s actions. The wall was so popular it soon covered an entire room! At the end of the month, we take the Post-Its down, hand them out to the person they’re dedicated to, and award an “employee of the month.”

The AAVEC Appreciation Wall grows so big it needs its own room.

2. Increase engagement with feedback and growth tools.

The talented people on our team are much more than caregivers. They’re individuals with professional aspirations and unique personal challenges. To further enhance our team’s work experience, we sought to deliver more growth and development opportunities.

The result was AAVEC’s Vet Exploration website. The site originally existed to train new hires, but it expanded into AAVEC’s engagement hub after additional content suggestions. Staff visits the website to discover what’s new and find ways to grow and thrive.

  • The Homepage includes important information such as Covid Vaccine registration, our next team-building event, and quick links to internal tools.
  • A New Hires section highlights onboarding resources, FAQs about their first day, technology set-ups, and culture-focused content.
  • Our Learning Center includes reference guides, practice sheets, lecture notes, and CE.
  • The Engagement section offers ways to share ideas, feedback, and ask questions.
  • The Thrive page directs staff to benefits info, vacation requests, shift selections, and current job openings.

With a team of 200, a content-heavy website like this makes sense for our practice, but clinics with smaller teams may find more value in simply communicating regularly with staff through meetings, email, or notice boards. The important lesson we discovered was to listen, encourage feedback, and take action to improve engagement.

AAVEC’s Vet Exploration website provides resources to enhance growth and engagement.

3. Support personal wellness by prioritizing self-care.

Our staff is the lifeblood of our hospital. When face masks became scarce at the beginning of the pandemic, three of us sewed custom masks for the team. We converted a conference room into a sewing room and made about 600. The project demonstrated how important our team’s health is, and as the crisis went on, we continued to make wellness a priority.

Over the last year, we’ve worked to establish a culture of self-care. We encouraged PTO and built a more accessible online method to request time off. We added “self-care stations” throughout the hospital with free food and drinks to boost energy and provide an excuse to take breaks. And our team decorates the ICU every holiday since some of our staff members can’t celebrate with family or friends outside of work.

AAVEC hosts a celebration for a team member whose graduation ceremony was canceled due to Covid.

Compassion Fatigue Check-ins have also become a regular practice. After a busy day at work, many team members might head home, sleep, and come back and do it all over again. The one-on-one sessions help us assess how each person is doing and present an opportunity to share what’s on their mind. We work on ways to better manage stress and recommend activities to overcome it.

These collective actions have reinforced the importance of self-care at AAVEC. And while there are many ways to promote wellness at work, embedding it into our culture helps build healthier habits and more positive attitudes.

The Results: A Focus on Staff Care Leads to Better Patient Care

Our investment in team engagement led to several positive outcomes. We saw shorter wait times, treatments completed on schedule, and greater client satisfaction. Our staff even started to pick up more open shifts. They wanted to be here, and it showed.

Last fall, after we launched many of these efforts, we asked our staff how they felt. One team member said, “It’s easy in times like these to forget why we started, but you helped us remember. When I come to work now, I remind myself we are in the business of saving lives, and that’s all because you took care of ours.”

When hospital staff is engaged and motivated, patients feel it, and clients sense it. By creating a sense of purpose and giving them room to grow, we help them succeed; pets are healthier, and the people who love them are happier.

For questions about our engagement approach or more details about these tactics, please email me at

Stephanie Garcia


Anne Arundel Veterinary Emergency Clinic | Annapolis, Maryland

Stephanie joined Anne Arundel Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Annapolis, Maryland in 2015 as an overnight emergency technician. Throughout her career, she’s worked in emergency & critical care, ophthalmology, internal medicine, orthopedics, specialized soft-tissue surgery, and more. She now serves as the team’s education coordinator – focused on creating opportunities for her team to learn and grow. Her passion lives in teaching and investing in the personal wellness of the veterinary care staff.

One Response

  1. Alice Malone says:

    GREAT ideas and i love that there is someone at the facility that has a passion for teaching and investing in wellness for the staff. WAY TO GO and thank you so much for sharing!

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