Unfortunately, stress is part and parcel of a veterinary career.
I can remember starting my first job; I had my stethoscope all ready to go, my books packed into the footwell of my new car and my trusty border collie by my side. Reading this back it sounds idyllic, but I can still remember the feelings I had on that first day! It was all-consuming terror.… with a little bit of imposter syndrome thrown in too! My first call was a downer cow with milk fever…..simple enough, right? That was not my thoughts at the time; I was petrified. It did get better but it took months before I felt even marginally relaxed. It sounds like my first job was horrible- but it wasn’t! I was extremely lucky to have an incredibly supportive and kind boss, a wonderfully, knowledgeable and supportive team and a good social scene. Unfortunately, this stress is just part of the job. And at any stage of the career, it can still have its stressful episode’s. The problems come when stress is not managed. Suicide rates in the veterinary profession are higher than ever and it is at the forefront of wellbeing initiatives. But for a profession so sought after, that people work so hard to qualify into, why when we finally get there are we struggling with stress?
The job itself
There’s no getting around it, it’s a stressful job! No matter what discipline you choose, they all come with their own stresses. Large animal work involves a lot of working alone, with no immediate second opinion available, working in an environment where financial considerations and constraints are chief factors to consider. Small animal work usually allows more support, but has its own stresses too; a fully booked consult list, with difficult cases and sometimes difficult clients is enough to make the calmest person’s blood pressure rise. The clinical side of the job brings its own stress too; many a time I have been confronted by a desperate client pleading with me to do all I can with zero funds- heartbreaking and stressful! Or the aggressive client who doesn’t want to pay but demands everything is done because as I vet I’m meant to love animals and do it for free.
Unfortunately, the job will always be this way. These stressors will always be present- the aim is learning to deal with them effectively.
The working environment
No matter how nice a practice may be environmental stresses cannot be avoided. When people work together different views and personalities are inevitable. This can lead to stress if conflicts arise. Other environmental stresses may be lack of equipment, busy surgery lists, overbooked & long consulting blocks etc. What may stress out the vet, (such as overbooked consulting blocks) will probably not stress out reception staff. However, a queue at reception and a ringing phone may not stress the vet, but the reception team is likely to be feeling frazzled.
Everyone’s circumstances are different and for many, it may not be possible to leave their stresses at the door. Whether it’s a family illness, money issues or a busy mum needing to get out on time to collect her little one from nursery. All must be considered and supported because stress on the individual means stress at work if adequate consideration is not given.
So what can we do?
If the type of work isn’t for you, or the job can never suit you; move on. Life is too short to stay in a job that makes you unhappy and can never meet your needs. There are many jobs about and one will exist that ticks most of the boxes for you. The veterinary degree opens up many doors. If clinical practice isn’t the job you desire consider diversifying. However, if stress alone causes you to be unhappy in your work, consider the following measures to try to manage it.
I believe that communication really can hold the key to alleviating stress. Talking about your worries to a trusted friend can help vent frustrations, put situations into perspective and give a fresh viewpoint on the issue of concern. If problems at work are causing you stress; talk them through. Problems with a colleague can be discussed and can often lead to a resolution. Problems with the running of the practice can be discussed with management and a solution sought. If problems are not communicated it is unrealistic to expect practice policies to change for a problem the practice is unaware exists!
Time pressure can often cause extreme stress. Communicate your needs. If a PTS takes you 20 minutes say so. Most practices will be happy to tweak the system around an individual vets requirements. If double booked consults cause you distress request that consult blocks are extended rather than double booked.
This may seem obvious but it is very easy to end up constantly working through lunch breaks and tea breaks when the work piles up. It is important to make sure that, where possible, these breaks are taken. The body needs nourished and hydrated and the brain needs a rest. Burnout can be avoided by taking 10 mins were required to sit down and turn off.
I have always found exercise incredibly therapeutic! Even after the worst day I usually find a run can ease my stress and bring me a great feeling of achievement. Although it can be difficult to fit into a busy day I find it an essential part of life to keep my mood lifted.
Socialise/ life outside of work.
The long hours and on-call can make having a life outside of the practice seem like an extra chore, but the rewards are great. I think new graduates especially should strive to join clubs and establish a social group. Being a vet can be very isolating as well as stressful, it is important to have friends unrelated to work to help integrate into the area, have an avenue to vent frustrations and stresses and ensure that practice life is not all consuming.
Mindfulness is the up and coming method of stress management. Mindfulness involves reducing stress by not focusing on the list of problems and concerns that lie ahead, but focusing on the moment and being attentive to the present. Mindfulness has a number of therapeutic applications and by changing the way we think can help with stress management and depression. There are lots of courses available with some companies using mindfulness and mindfulness training in the job.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list for coping with a ‘bad day’. This is just a start point to try aid stress management. Mental health issues in the veterinary profession are disproportionately high. As another year of prospective graduates prepares itself for employment, as a profession, I think it is essential to support them as best we can and help them deal with embarking on a very stressful but rewarding career. I hope that, with a little help, they can create for themselves a sustainable career that they can enjoy.
If you feel you need to talk to someone, please visit https://www.vetlife.org.uk/