What to do when emotions run high in a disease outbreak

Engaging your people and getting them back on track is crucial following a disease outbreak.
calendar icon 7 May 2019
clock icon 6 minute read

Any way you look at it, going through a disease outbreak on a farm is difficult, but Mary Battrell, DVM, MS, staff veterinarian for the East Central Region of Smithfield Hog Production, has always said, “The pigs are easy; it’s the people that make things difficult” writing for Pig Health Today.

Mary Battrell

She is responsible for the health and well-being of 140,000 sows, and as a result, she is also peripherally responsible for the health and well-being of the people who own and care for those pigs. Knowing how to talk to and work with people during a disease outbreak is an important part of getting a farm back on track, Battrell said during a talk at the 2019 American Association of Swine Veterinarians meeting.

“Although most of us chose this profession due to our love for animals, we are very much in the people business,” she said. “We can develop and lay out a perfectly devised plan, but if we do not have buy-in from the farm staff, it is destined for failure.”

When PEDv hit

The first case of porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (PEDv) in North Carolina occurred June 21, 2013, roughly 50 days after it was identified on US soil, Battrell said. The lag time gave her the opportunity to educate the production team on the clinical signs and expected economic consequences of a PEDv outbreak.

She and her team reviewed existing biosecurity procedures and made necessary improvements. Farms tightened up on their biosecurity protocols, and a few sow farms added drive-through disinfectant stations, she explained. But even with the increased efforts, 89 percent of the sow farms in her area of responsibility experienced a PEDV outbreak.

“PEDv brought with it a wide range of emotional responses, with sorrow being the most common,” Battrell said. It was particularly hard on caregivers in the farrowing house and owners.

“It was not uncommon to be greeted by owners or workers at the farm with tears in their eyes. Some of them literally broke down. The owners had sympathy for the pigs and the employees, and they expected their employees to quit.”

Many of those people had worked in this industry for years. They cared deeply for the pigs and hated to see what PEDv was doing to the animals under their care. Owners were sorry their employees would not be seeing a bonus cheque for some time, and there was real concern that caregivers would seek other employment.

“I knew people were hurting, but the local general practitioner really put it into perspective for me when he made the correlation with the timing of PEDv and the increase in patients on anxiety, sleep deprivation and anti-depression drugs,” Battrell said.

The first step: listen

Battrell said in a disease outbreak, it’s important to empathise and listen. People need time to explain how they feel about what they are experiencing.

“Often you will hear the same story over and over…,” she said, “but they need the opportunity to get things off their chest. After giving them time to talk, it is then important to turn the conversation toward focusing on the solution and moving the farm forward.”

She recommends these steps for getting people back on track:

  • Tell owners and staff members what is going to be accomplished each day. Explain the exposure process in detail and why things are being done a certain way.
  • Assign specific tasks to assist in the exposure process and for the days to follow.
  • Help paint a picture of what the farm health should look like in the weeks and months to follow.
  • Provide a timeline for improvement so they understand that things will not always be as bad as they are today.
  • Provide specific tasks and timelines in writing. “There is a lot of information to cover, and their emotions make it that much more difficult to listen and focus,” Battrell said. “Written instructions allow them to review the information later when they have had time to calm down and ask questions as needed.” Send them a new written plan whenever the original plan is modified.
  • Volunteer for the nastiest job. “I ask employees to bring the pigs to me and my assistant (which is usually the production specialist). We take it from there,” she explained. “If anyone appears emotionally distraught, I ask the owner if they can go home for the day, or I might even suggest that they allow that person to take some vacation.”
  • Encourage the farm manager or owner to look for potential sources of disease introduction. Explain the incubation period, and ask them to list anything or anyone that has come near the farm within that incubation period and beyond. They will likely come up with the most probable cause. “Hopefully, they will be willing to share that information, so you can help protect other farms,” Battrell said. “Either way, it is important to identify a possible cause, so they can focus efforts on avoiding that risk in the future.” It’s like a fresh crime scene, she pointed out, but it still needs to be approached with sympathy and caution. “There’s a way to do that without pointing fingers or laying blame,” she said.
  • Give constant, positive reinforcement. “Tell them repeatedly, ‘Don’t give up. Every day is going to be a little bit better,’” she said. “And never use the words, ‘There is nothing you can do about it.’ There is always something they can do.”

Focus on healing

Frustration kicks into high gear when farms do not meet the expected timelines for PEDv cleanup. In some circumstances, they put the blame on their veterinarian, their production specialist, the company or anyone but themselves, Battrell said.

“This is where those written instructions/protocols came in handy. Walk through the farm together and review each bullet point. They often follow the instructions that are easily implemented and skip the more difficult ones. If deemed necessary, we added more detail to the instructions. We would change the flow of people through the farm or assign each employee a room or barn they were responsible for. The greater their involvement in finding the solution, the more successful the outcome,” she said.

If the burden is too much, seek help

Battrell stressed that as a veterinarian, you’re not going to have all the answers. You can listen, learn, teach, lead and coach, but to do these things successfully, you have to care. Caring comes with a price, however. Veterinarians are supposed to have the answers and are supposed to be able to fix the problems. When those problems aren’t easily fixed, there’s an emotional toll on veterinarians, too.

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