There is a lot to say about the culture of workplaces and the impact that the workplace can have on the mental health and well-being of its workers. This talk is absolutely true and if you would like a summary article reviewing the research on creating mentally healthy workplaces, please click here. But there is something even worse than an unhealthy workplace culture… and I am going to go out on a limb here…. because I think that for veterinarians, the problem which is bigger than workplace culture is the culture of the veterinary industry in general. Large chunks of our industry have a nasty, smelly culture – a culture of overwork. This culture is embodied in individuals and it can come to infect whole workplaces if the practice leaders allow it. It is visible, it stinks and in my opinion, it is burning veterinarians in large numbers. Have you tried to employ an experienced vet recently?? If so, you will know what I mean.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the people in the veterinary industry. When I left clinical practice, I took six months off to be really clear about what I would miss and what I wanted to do next. It soon became apparent that I didn’t miss the animals but that I did miss the people – the clients to a certain extent, but even more so, the veterinary professionals. We are amazing – down-to- earth, intelligent, efficient and effective, and awesome at caring for our patients and their owners.
So where are these awesome people going wrong??
The truth is that it probably started way a long way back, before university, when we had to study super hard to get into vet school. We put everything else to one side as we focused on perfection in our year 12 studies so that we could achieve the goal that many of us set ourselves as young kids. I AM GOING TO DO WHAT IT TAKES TO GET INTO VET. Then we became one of maybe a hundred uber-intelligent, hard-working and dedicated veterinary students facing a jam-packed curriculum. The unbalanced life continued as we did what we needed to do to get through the course. I AM GOING TO DO WHAT IT TAKES TO GET THROUGH THIS VET DEGREE.
Aha – we thought as we breathed a big sigh of relief on graduation. Now, I will be happy, now I will be balanced. We start our first job only to find that, despite all those years of studying, we are facing a huge and steep learning curve. Applying our academic knowledge to practical settings is harder than we think and having the buck stop with you is a scary responsibility that many of us don’t feel ready to accept. The unbalanced life continues whilst we seek to master the skills we need to feel successful in our job. I AM GOING TO DO WHAT IT TAKES TO SURVIVE MY FIRST TWO YEARS OF PRACTICE. Can you see the pattern here? It is a pattern of overwork. It is a pattern of delaying happiness until a certain goal is reached. And it is not sustainable. Of course, there are times when we have to dig deep and push on through. Of course there are. But this has to be the exception not the rule. We are not computers. We cannot be switched on at the beginning of a working day, work at 100% all day without a break and then turn off and go home, ready to come back and do it again tomorrow and the next day and be on call and… Cardwell and Lewis wrote in their article this year, that veterinary students appear to accept the lack of balance between work and relaxation, thinking this can be remedied in the future.
I think that is what many of us thought. We thought we could change our approach to life in the future.
And some of us can and have. But others amongst us, can’t. As McArthur et at (2017) reported, vet students “establish self-care and coping patterns that are likely to persist into their professional careers.” 2 YES – we develop neural pathways of overwork – overwork becomes our normal. Over time, we learn to be validated and derive our sense of self-worth on the basis of our achievements. I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO LIVE A BALANCED LIFE ANYMORE. If we haven’t burnt out by the time we finish our first couple of years in the industry, then we set ourselves new and more goals – thinking I will eat healthily, exercise, do some personal development etc once that’s done. We don’t focus on our well-being or balance or personal growth and the pattern of a life-time continues. When exactly do you think you are going to prioritise looking after yourself and personal development? When is this this magical time going to occur? Is it after you complete that distance education course, when you get the next vet up and running or when the breeding season is over? Will it ever come? Or do you have to scrape the bottom of the barrel before you make a change? This blog has been brewing in me for a while. Can you guess what the catalyst was for getting it out? I am not sure that you can – the link may seem tenuous. I was sitting reading the paper last Saturday morning and read an article about another of these famous TV personalities who was allowed to behave in a predatory and disrespectful way to women for most of his career. Now that the lid had been lifted, many women, famous and respected women, related stories of their run-ins with this TV presenter over the last couple of decades. And it seems that everyone knew. Everyone knew and nobody did anything about it. Why is that so? Why did they suffer in silence? Why did they think it couldn’t be changed? That’s what it sometimes feels like for me in the veterinary industry. We think that it is acceptable to work this hard. We think this is just what we have to do to get ahead. We might think that it is only us that is struggling – that we are not good enough, that we can’t cope. Other people might look like they are doing it easily. Nah ah.
You don’t have to work this hard. There is another way. There is a better way. The first step is recognizing that your current life is not working as well as you would like. The second step is choosing to live your life differently, choosing to take action. We can approach work in a more balanced and sustainable way. Our neural pathways around work and the validation we get from our achievements can be changed. But it takes work and it takes support. You may be able to do this by yourself – but ask yourself, how long have you been working like this and how has balancing things by yourself been working for you so far?
Why don’t you give yourself a Christmas present and start the New Year in a different way?
VetPrac and Make Headway offer group courses that provide the knowledge and the support that will help you to make changes in your life. We have been running these on-line groups for 18 months now and they work really well. You could join our High Achievers course and take the opportunity to do a bit of a rain- check of your life and decide what is working for you and where you want to focus more and less of your time and energy. Or you might be a new or recent graduate (or a boss of the same) and want to set yourself up to thrive in the profession – if so VetSupport is the program for you.
Written by Dr. Cathy Warburton @ Make Headway
1. Cardwell and Lewis (2017) Vocation, belongingness, and balance: a qualitative study of veterinary student well-being. JVME 44(1);29-37
2. McArthur et al (2017) The prevalence of compassion fatigue among veterinary students in Australia and the associated psychological factors. JVME 44(1);9-21