What is stress? How does it impact the veterinary profession specifically? And what can be done to help when you or colleagues experience difficulties?
These were issues discussed by Rosie Allister, chair of the Vet Helpline, during a session at the BSAVA congress in Birmingham on April 10.
Ms Allister defined stress as the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them’, and explained that work-related stress was not due to just one factor. Using the ‘demand, control, support model’ for stress, she described how an individual’s perception of stress was made up of the pressure experienced at work, as well as their available options and sense of control, plus the level of support they had access to.
She presented statistics demonstrating that stress and, by extension, the mental health problems it contributed to were not uncommon, despite the persisting stigma surrounding the issues. She explained that 40 per cent of all cases of work-related illness in the UK were due to stress, and that it was estimated that, in the past year, one in four people in the country would have experienced a mental health problem.
Stress in the profession
Ms Allister said that there was currently a disconnect between the public’s perception of the veterinary profession and vets’ day-to-day reality, as clients ‘don’t always appreciate the difficult parts of the job’. Also, paradoxically, although vets were adept at considering the welfare of animals, they tended to think about their own wellbeing as ‘just something that happens to [them]’.
A number of research studies conducted within the past 15 years had shown that the suicide rate among the UK’s veterinary surgeons was three times that of the general population, and it was among the highest of all professional groups surveyed. There were also certain subgroups of vets that had been identified as being more likely to experience difficulties (such as suicidal thoughts), including woman, younger vets and lone workers.
Signs and risk factors of stress in vets
Signs of stress can be physical, behavioural, emotional and/or mental:
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Eating more or less than usual
- Increased smoking or drinking
- Social withdrawal
- Mood swings
- Changes in timekeeping
- Anxious or nervous behaviour
- Low affect or depression
- Long working hours
- Heavy workload
- Work-life imbalance
- Difficulty with clients
- Financial problems
- Euthanasia/delivering bad news
- Lack of support
- Career changes
- Poor job satisfaction
- General work-related stress
Ms Allister went on to emphasise that ‘there is a lot you can do to protect and help yourself’. One piece of advice was to shift thoughts away from comparing oneself to others, as such perceptions where rarely objective or true, and the resulting beliefs could be harmful. She also encouraged those present to ‘know yourselves’. For instance, being aware of personal traits such as perfectionism could help put reactions to work demands into perspective. The more insight vets had about themselves, she said, the better placed they were to allow themselves to be individuals and to ‘find the right place’ to work.
Finding the right practice was particularly important for newly qualified vets, as first posts could colour the view of their careers, Ms Allister explained. Adding that ‘the transition into practice is a particularly difficult time’, she suggested that graduates should not settle for any job, but should make sure their first employer was supportive and welcoming. They could do this by asking about opportunities for CPD, consultation lengths and expectations of clinical work. She also advocated developing good time-management skills and being vigilant for signs of compassion fatigue.
She closed the lecture by urging vets also to be aware of warning signs in colleagues. It was important to be empathetic and take their distress seriously, while offering them the time and space to express themselves. Ms Allister added that support could be accessed from a number of sources, including the NHS and university services, as well as from charities such as Vetlife/Vet Helpline (telephone 0303 040 2551), and the Samaritans (telephone 08457 909090).