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My view on what constitutes a positive working environment has changed over the years.
I used to believe in the idealistic concept that when we went out into the professional world, we would all love our jobs and stress would be minimal. But the reality is very different. It is a fact that the veterinary industry is a stressful one.
This was evidenced by an RCVS survey that saw 90 per cent of vets admit they found their jobs stressful1. There is no getting away from the fact that working in this profession is emotive, tiring and unpredictable in equal measure – with many of the contentious elements difficult, or impossible, to eradicate.
Unforeseen circumstances are a certainty: did someone mention a Friday night pyo? But does this mean they have to be stressful? In my experience, no, it does not.
I am not saying maintaining workplace well-being alongside these challenges is easy, but it is not impossible, either. Of course, we would all like jobs that see us working alongside constantly smiling colleagues, in roles that afford us protected tea breaks and no danger of having to do overtime – but that is hugely unrealistic. The key is to work with what you have in the real world.
By acknowledging the issues we face, considering ways to minimise impact on our well-being, and committing to foster a culture of support, flexibility and respect within our teams, we can be better prepared to cope and support one another.
Concerns regarding increased workload, and the fallout from that, are very real. Workplace stress is the second largest cause of work-related ill-health, attributing to approximately 11.5 million working days being lost in 20162.
This ill-health results in absenteeism, presenteeism (those who go to work despite being unwell or unfit to work – particularly mentally), increased staff turnover, reduced job satisfaction and poor productivity – all of which have a knock-on effect on the rest of the team and to the success of the business. To leave the problem unaddressed simply creates a need for further compensatory efforts to counteract the aforementioned issues.
Health and safety training is at the forefront of modern working. We all accept the responsibility to maintain our physical health when at work, and that of those around us.
We’re all familiar with the health and safety executive poster reminding us to take the appropriate safety measures for our role. However, what is often overlooked is the fact employers also have a legal duty of care to “protect the welfare of workers, which includes managing hazards to psychological health”.
Not part and parcel
Veterinary professionals are familiar with the repeat exposure to death and suffering, lone working and poor work-life balance. The problem is, all too often these factors are viewed as “part of the job”, completely overlooking the legal responsibility we, as managers, have to uphold the Health and Safety at Work Act 1999.
The veterinary industry has a suicide rate twice that of dentists and doctors, and four times the national average of the general population3.
Evidently, we take a very significant psychological risk by working in this industry. Not preparing and providing our students, staff and managers with the skills and tools to maintain their psychological health should be seen as the equivalent to sending a construction worker into a treacherous building site without a hard hat, and wondering why he or she fell victim to a serious head injury.
Considering such stark statistics may seem morbid, but thinking about how well staff are equipped to work in this profession – and discussing it across the practice – can lead to positive changes that benefit not only employees, but also the wider business.
Tackling the problems
Of course, many key factors exist that can have a positive impact on workplace well-being, but no one-size-fits-all formula exists. A good place to start is by trialling some ideas that appeal to you, and adapt them to suit the needs of your team and the demands of the work environment.
The Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital team was delighted to be voted winners of the Practice of the Year Award (medium category) at the 2019 SPVS/MMI Vet Wellbeing Awards. I believe what sets us apart – and the reason we won – was down to our open and honest attitude towards mental health and stress.
Mental ill-health affects one in four people in the UK, so it is highly likely someone on your team has, or will be, affected. By setting a precedent and encouraging staff to talk about such issues, we have reduced stigma and ignited conversations about various triggers and coping mechanisms, which have been beneficial for all.
This culture in practice has manifested itself in various ways, which I have outlined here, along with some top tips.
- Acknowledge the risks: next to the obligatory Health and Safety Executive health and safety at work poster, we have pinned the Time to Change campaign leaflet entitled “It is OK to talk about mental health here”. This sits alongside the Vetlife Helpline contact information sticker.
- Empower your team: we have a designated “Wellbeing Board”, which combines light-hearted advice on self-care, mindfulness, breathing techniques, and practising gratitude, alongside an extensive list of resources for advice, therapy or support in a crisis.
- Acknowledge mental health awareness days: these events are a great opportunity to start dialogues about what people find stressful and what they do to relax. It is a great way to learn from each other.
- Openly appreciate your colleagues: we actively encourage the team to acknowledge the help and support given by colleagues, usually via an email thread. Such conversations are fantastic bonding tools.
- Acknowledge kindness: simple “thank you” emails go a long way, but you may wish to consider dedicating one day per month to actively doing this. You could also have a dedicated notice board where people can leave notes of appreciation ad hoc.
- Get to know your team: it is our responsibility as leaders to know and understand our team and how they are coping.
- Informal one-to-one, and return-to-work interviews: these are an ideal opportunity to discuss underlying issues and encourage people to seek help if deemed appropriate, while signposting them to relevant resources.
- No blame: when things go wrong, we address them seriously, but constructively, addressing the problem, accepting responsibility and taking immediate action to prevent such mistakes happening again. We avoid berating people and try to focus on positive reinforcement as a learning tool.
- Get social: having an established a social calendar allows us to facilitate fun team outings. Events range from board game evenings in the hospital common room to comedy nights. Encouraging a range of activities, ensuring they are not solely based around alcohol and not forcing anyone to take part, is the key thing to remember with this one.
- Regular communication: we use radios and a WhatsApp group to enable staff to request help if needed, and coordinate lunch breaks and end-of-shift cover. We also share a “happy case of the day”, which usually involves pictures of the cutest patient in the hospital. We also use this group to offer support to each other after particularly difficult days.
- Morning brief: while this concept was met with some initial resistance, these meetings are now pivotal to the coordination of the day. The team comes together for 10 minutes every morning so we are able to pick up on likely snag points ahead, coordinate break cover, share important messages and often have a bit of a laugh, too, which is the most important thing here, let’s be honest.
Despite our best efforts, the fact remains veterinary medicine will always be a stressful job and not always enjoyable. But what we can do is build a supportive, open culture that de-stigmatises stress and encourages a mentality of feeling valued.
Facing difficulties head on has improved our ability to cope and brought us closer as a team, improving moral and job satisfaction. As a result, the Beaumont is a safe place to work, even on the tougher days, and I am personally very proud of our efforts.
1. Institute for Employment Studies (2014). RCVS survey of the veterinary profession (2014), https://bit.ly/37qfyED
2. Health and Safety Executive (2016). Health and safety at work. Summary statistics for Great Britain 2016, https://bit.ly/2RLBbZt
3. Bertram DJ and Baldwin DS (2008). Veterinary surgeons and suicide: influences, opportunities and research directions, Vet Rec 162(2): 36-40.