It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. And there’s never been more discussion about the stresses of veterinary work, and veterinary mental health within the profession. With many departing the profession entirely, diversifying into other areas or worst of all suffering chronic anxiety, depression and at times resorting to suicide, it’s crucial we try to tackle stress at the earliest opportunity.
Here are my five top tips for tackling stress in veterinary practice, whether you’re a vet, vet nurse or part of the practice management and customer care team. It’s not an exhaustive list, but hopefully helps a bit if you’re struggling.
Break time means break time
We all have crazy days in practice, where you feel you don’t have time for a toilet break, let alone lunch. Yet it’s rarely a driver of chronic stress if those days happen just once in a blue moon. In fact, pulling together as a team on those days can have a positive influence on team cohesion, camaraderie and a sense of achievement.
But when missed breaks and feeling guilty about taking lunch (or a pee break!) become a regular feature of your workplace, there’s something seriously wrong. First off, breaks are a legal requirement to allow you to do your job safely and effectively. Sometimes it’s the nature of vet practice that the time you start lunch might not be guaranteed. You’re late because there’s still an animal under anaesthetic you need to keep monitoring or a house call took longer than expected.
Once everything is under control however, take your break and take your full allocated time. Being disturbed on your break ‘just for a quick question’ or to take a phone call doesn’t allow the full required time to reboot before returning to work. Regularly having consultations waiting and only 5 minutes to gulp your lunch down in record time means your practice is overbooking clients and underdelivering on service. Not to mention disrespecting your need to wind down and prepare to give your best when you get back on duty.
Have a word with practice management if they don’t allow breaks to be real and guaranteed breaks. If this is done constructively and with concern for all staff, they should listen. Sometimes they just don’t know the impact this type of culture has on the team, and on some individuals more than others. If they don’t care or aren’t willing to respect the importance of staff breaks, search for a practice that does.
Prioritise your workload
Learning to ruthlessly prioritise is one of the key steps to minimising workplace stress. Much of what stresses us arises from a feeling of having too much to do and too little time, or control. First of all, talk to your colleagues and management if you feel overwhelmed and see if you can whittle down your to-do list by identifying what’s most urgent and most important. Next, using a tool called the Action Priority Matrix, work together on ranking activities on your list by their effort and impact.
Start with the ‘quick wins’ which are low effort, but high impact. Doing these will take some of the stress off your back, giving you a sense of achievement and motivation. Dedicating a half hour to tackle phone calls and lab reports is always a stress buster.
Next, allocate some time on a regular basis to those ‘major projects’ that are high effort, high impact. These can be tackled and become less stressful if we chip away at them in a regular and dedicated way. Well planned blocks of consultation appointments with enough time to devote to them are a good example of this. Make it everyone’s priority to plan consultations effectively and give a great customer experience.
‘Fill-ins’ are the low effort, low impact activities that take up time for little return. Do them if you have time but don’t stress about them. If possible, delegate to a member of the team who has expertise, time and enthusiasm for the task. Delegation is not shifting the responsibility onto someone else, but rather finding a way for everyone in a team to work cohesively in clear job roles towards a common goal.
Finally, the ‘thankless tasks’ are low impact but high effort. Radical idea, but drop them. They are not worth your time and are the worst culprits in adding to workplace stress.
Prioritise your health
Good diet. Regular exercise. Enough sleep. You know the drill already but it’s also just so hard to get motivated.
Start by making one small change at a time. Make a healthy lunch the evening before work, two days a week. Then three if possible. Eat breakfast. Make time for it.
Instead of taking the car, walk a bit and take the bus. You’ll get more reading/podcast time (non-veterinary related ideally), and less road rage. Turn off the laptop or other technology an hour before bed time. Little changes that recharge the health and wellness battery rather than run it down.
If you don’t make some positive changes to your lifestyle nobody else will. And it’s a cliché but feeling more rested, exercised and full of good nutrition really does make a remarkable difference to mood and energy levels.
Be kind to yourself (and others)
We are often our own worst critics. But the majority of us dwell too much on the little irritations or times when something hasn’t gone to plan in practice rather than the many cases that have gone well. Try to acknowledge the happy, satisfied clients and small wins, and let go of negative thoughts. Breathing and meditation exercises work for some, but getting together with non-veterinary friends (or vet friends with a ban on work talk) is the cure for others.
Having hobbies that aren’t related to vet life and animals can really help focus other areas of the brain and help you switch off from work life and the stress it holds. Too many vet professionals immerse every aspect of their lives in veterinary sphere, so seeking out local activities and groups to get involved with is a good idea to enrich your life outside of work. It can be very hard to let go of veterinary stresses if all you ever do or talk about is veterinary stuff. Work life balance is crucial, but requires effort.
Treat yourself for working hard and each job well done. Little treats like a relaxing bath, a tea break or chocolate aren’t going to solve the practice problems, but rewarding yourself allows you to think more positively about your work and value. Bigger treats occasionally like taking a weekend break, and switching off from vet social media are equally important.
Be kind to your colleagues as well as yourself. Kindness generates kindness. Teamwork really does make the dream work. Avoid gossip and drama as much as possible. Call it out when you hear it. Avoid negative talk about clients in clinic, even if you really need to vent. Talk to your manager in private or vent with a friend later. Nothing propagates a toxic work environment like collaborative team moaning about every little annoyance day in, day out.
Finally, don’t compare yourself to others. You are you, and you’re doing a fine job.
Ask for help
It’s OK to find yourself struggling, being overly critical, cynical, tired, feeling you don’t care, feeling you have no way out. It’s OK to find yourself wondering how to lift the brain fog that’s sapping you of any energy or enthusiasm for life, in and outside of work. If you are having difficulties sleeping, mood swings, changes in eating habits, finding yourself becoming socially isolated or withdrawn, turning to alcohol or substance abuse or any other behaviours that make you feel bad about yourself, then there may be a problem.
Telling one person you trust at work is the first step to getting some help when you are overwhelmed or feeling burnt out. Talking to a family member or friend is also strongly advised. You are not alone, and again although it’s a cliché a problem shared really is a problem halved in many cases. The weight lifting off your shoulders by talking to someone is incredibly helpful.
VetLife are a wonderful, non judgemental organisation who are trained to give brilliant advice to anyone struggling with stress, anxiety or depression within the vet profession. They have a phone line to call and speak with a caring, experienced volunteer and an anonymous email support line you can take advantage off. They’ll give sensible, practical advice on how best to tackle whatever concerns or worries you’re experiencing. Please, please, don’t suffer in silence.
0303 040 2551