“Can someone help me with this dog?”
“Is anyone answering that call?”
“Are Ralphie’s bloodwork results in?”
“Did someone reply to Ms. Smith’s email?”
“We need to get surgery started. I have a wellness scheduled in an hour.”
A veterinary clinic is a busy place, and team members are frequently asked to be responsible for multiple things at once. This can lead to a work environment where jobs are left half completed, records get jumbled and employees get stressed. We want to make sure all animals get the help they need, so we try to work harder and faster, but often find ourselves buried in work and making mistakes.
Why do so many veterinary professionals feel unable to juggle the challenges of daily practice?
The truth lies in the human brain. We are asking ourselves to do the impossible: multitask.
For decades, science has illustrated the inability of humans to multitask. A study conducted at Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris placed participants in an fMRI and asked them to complete first a single task, then two tasks at once. When working on a single task, both halves of the prefrontal cortex—the “attention center” of the brain—were engaged simultaneously, and participants were generally able to complete the task successfully. When given two coinciding tasks, the left and right halves of the brain were found to work independently of one another and participants made approximately three times the number of mistakes. This study and others like it have so strongly suggested the pitfalls of multitasking that they have been cited when creating laws across the United States, such as forbidding texting while driving.
The human brain has limits on the amount of information it can process at any given time. Neuroscience has identified processing limits specifically in the areas of visual short-term memory and the psychological refractory period. Our brain can take more than half a second to recognize a single stimulus, and once that stimulus is stored in visual short-term memory, it takes up space. Visual short-term memory can only store a limited number of stimuli at one time, so attempting to engage in multiple activities creates a “bottleneck,” literally overstimulating the brain and severely delaying the brain’s response to stimuli. This lag in the brain’s response, defined as the psychological refractory period, is what prevents people from effectively multitasking.
Individuals attempting more than one task at a time do not, in fact, succeed in doing two things at once, but instead engage in what is known as “task-switching.” Task-switching gives the illusion of multitasking but, in reality, involves changing focus between two or more activities. In order to task-switch, the human brain must identify which task is now being performed and access the information that applies to that task. These processes are known as “goal-shifting” and “rule-activation.”
When goal-shifting, one’s brain recognizes a shift from a previous task to a new task. The brain then categorizes the new task, which leads to rule-activation, gathering the cognitive skills necessary (language processing, mathematical calculation, social rules, etc.) to accomplish the new task. At the same time, information and “rules” from the previous task must be put aside.
As you can imagine, this takes time and is not always completely successful. Task-switching has repeatedly been shown to result in decreased productivity and increased error. The time lost to task-switching may seem insignificant (only tenths of a second per switch), but over the course of an average work day, up to 40% of productive time can be wasted.
Of equal or even greater concern is the increased incidence of uncompleted tasks and errors associated with frequent task-switching. Mistakes increase with the complexity and number of tasks, and some tasks may even be left undone. In one study, 41% of interruptions resulted in the participant abandoning the primary task entirely.
Even in instances where speed and accuracy of work can be maintained in the face of multiple demands, attempting multitasking has a steep price. A study published in 2008 placed participants in an environment of “interrupted performance” (typing an email while being asked questions, answering a ringing phone and responding to instant messages) and found that, while able to complete the assigned task in the time allotted, “interrupted” participants reported significantly higher levels of stress, effort and frustration, and perceived a higher workload than those working without interruptions. In an industry plagued with burnout and employee turnover, it is very important to consider the emotional cost of a work environment.
How, then, do we minimize multitasking in the veterinary environment?
A few small adjustments could make a big difference in the workflow of a practice and daily lives of its employees.
1. Divide and Conquer
Veterinary medicine is in many ways a team sport, but you can minimize task-switching by specifying roles within that team. “Veterinary Technician/Assistant” is a broad title that encompasses many responsibilities, so create roles within that title and encourage people not to stray from their role throughout the day. For example; a technician assigned to anesthesia should not be asked to answer phones, step out to do an appointment, run a laboratory test or speak to a client. Many clinics and hospitals already practice a form of this by having certain employees assigned to one area (laboratory, appointment, surgery, reception, etc.) for the duration of their shift. The hard part is making sure employees are not pulled into other duties as the day unfolds. It is important to encourage team members to focus on their assigned role and ensure staffing and clinic climate enable them to do so in order to maximize productivity and minimize error.
2. Block it Off
Studies suggest that individuals should ideally work on a specific task or task type (e.g., checking email) for a minimum of 20 minutes before switching to another task. This type of work, often called “batch processing,” allows for optimized neural efficiency and accuracy by letting the brain focus on one task, and by practicing and repeating that task, increases speed and decreases the effort required to complete it.
In the case of email, opening emails throughout the day as they come in is the least productive and most disruptive way to perform that particular task. Instead, designate blocks throughout the day and “batch process” emails, texts, voicemails, prescription refill requests, etc. This also decreases interruptions to staff engaged in other unrelated tasks.
3. Rein in the Ring
I have often joked that my stress increases more when I hear the clinic phone than when I hear a fire alarm. Jokes aside, a ringing phone immediately forces a break in focus and answering a phone necessitates a massive cognitive shift. Additionally, phone calls frequently lead to a string of tasks such as scheduling an appointment, filling a prescription, and/or contacting another clinic for records.
All of this means taking a phone call while in the middle of another task almost guarantees the original task will suffer. Whenever possible, disable the ringer on phones located in treatment areas and redirect calls to a designated staff member(s). It is better practice to batch process voicemails than ask employees to work effectively with regular phone interruptions.
4. Take Breaks
A day in a veterinary professional’s life never seems to slow down, and animals in need don’t take a break. But, the fact is, humans need breaks to perform at a high level. In fact, a demanding environment such as a veterinary clinic makes taking breaks even more necessary. Our brain cannot completely synthesize information if we are constantly bombarding it with new stimuli. This includes stimuli not related to work. So, that means breaks should ideally not involve talking with a coworker, calling to check in on a loved one, visiting social media or engaging in other stimulating activities.
The most effective break is taking a walk alone or resting in a quiet room. Just 5-10 minutes is sufficient time to allow your brain to catch up with your day. Try to take a short break every 90 minutes. One long break in the middle of the day (such as a 30-minute lunch period) is less effective than brief, frequent breaks—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take lunch! It means a lunch break does not diminish the need for additional time to decompress throughout the day.
Balancing the constant and varied demands of veterinary work is one of the most challenging aspects of our careers. By attempting to “do it all” we are selling ourselves, our patients, our clients and our coworkers short. Learning to work in a way that acknowledges human limits will ultimately take us further than pushing ourselves to the edge. When we ditch the multitasking habit, we make space for satisfaction in our work and reveal how much more we are capable of when we give ourselves permission to do less.. +
- Mark G, Gudith D, Klocke U. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. CHI ’08: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2008;107-110.
- Marois R, Ivanoff J. Capacity limits of information processing in the brain. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 2005;9. 296-305
- Multitasking: Switching costs. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask. Published March 20, 2006. Accessed February 4, 2021.
- O’Conaill B, Frohlich D. Timespace in the Workplace: Dealing With Interruptions. CHI ‘95 Mosaic of Creativity. 1995;262-263.
- To Multitask or Not to Multitask. University of Southern California. https://appliedpsychologydegree.usc.edu/blog/to-multitask-or-not-to-multitask/. Accessed February 2, 2021.
- Weinschenk S. The True Cost of Multitasking. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking. Published September 18, 2012. Accessed February 2, 2021.