Working in the veterinary profession can give us a sense of familiarity with illness. We see and treat unwell animals every day, and most of us develop an understanding of the rhythms of disease in our patients, from the piercingly acute to the achingly chronic. We recognise the causes of most of these illnesses and know the steps that can be taken to try to prevent some of them. This familiarity might not exactly breed contempt, but it does give us a certain feeling of understanding – and perhaps of control – over sickness and wellness.
The human experience of illness is very different from that of our patients. The emotional burden of long-term pain, illness and disability can be profound and the practical consequences can affect almost every aspect of life – work, family, relationships and finances. When it comes to our friends and colleagues, we can’t assume that we understand what they are going through simply because we have some understanding of the pathophysiology or treatment of their condition.
The most recent [RCVS] survey of the profession suggests that around 6.7 percent of vets and 7.4 percent of RVNs have a ‘disability or medical conditions that limits the work [they] can do’
Around one in four employed people in the UK currently have one or more long-term health conditions (Public Health England, 2019). We don’t have precise statistics for the veterinary sector currently, but the most recent Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) survey of the profession suggests that around 6.7 percent of vets (Robinson et al., 2019a) and 7.4 percent of RVNs (Robinson et al., 2019b) have a “disability or medical condition that limits work [they] can do”. This is probably an underestimate of the true levels of long-term health conditions in veterinary staff but suffice to say that if you work in a medium-sized team then there’s probably at least one person with some ongoing health issues.
Long-term illness and disability in the veterinary team
Disability and chronic illness can affect every aspect of a person’s life, and work is no exception. Team members with ongoing health issues are often viewed as “problems” in the workplace, but this need not be the case. In the right environment, they can excel as much as any other member of the team and you will likely find that your flexibility is rewarded with loyalty – workplaces that are genuinely accommodating to staff with long-term health issues are still uncommon in the veterinary profession. And as a bonus, many of the necessary changes also improve life for the rest of the team.
So, what does thoughtful leadership look like when supporting chronically ill or disabled team members?
Listen, don’t assume
When it comes to supporting team members with ongoing health issues, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone’s experience of ill health is different, not only in terms of their symptoms and side effects from treatment, but also in their home life, support networks and socioeconomic circumstances. Even if you have some familiarity with a particular condition – either yourself or via friends or family – you can’t assume that you know what someone is going through or what will be helpful for them.
Take the time to listen to your team member’s own descriptions of their issues and allow them to outline what they think will be helpful to manage their condition
Take the time to listen to your team member’s own descriptions of their issues and allow them to outline what they think will be helpful to manage their condition. The more you can tailor your support to their needs, the better they can manage their condition and the more fully they can engage with their role.
Adjust and adapt
Chronically ill or disabled team members will likely need some changes – or reasonable adjustments – to the way they work. This might mean altered hours, altered duties or particular equipment or software to allow them to participate fully in their role. Employers have a legal duty to make many of these changes, but to view this as a tick-box exercise is to miss the opportunity it offers. Many of these changes – such as regular breaks and mealtimes, ergonomic seating and flexibility on rotas – are likely to have wider benefits, and a positive impact on staff health and well-being more generally. Managed well, this can improve retention rates, and at a time when the profession has never been under more strain for staffing, this is often a wise investment.
Many of these changes […] are likely to have wider benefits, and a positive impact on staff health and well-being more generally
Working out what adjustments are helpful for each individual can be challenging. The best way to navigate this – for both employer and employee – is to use an Occupational Health (OH) service. As professionals ourselves we should recognise the value of taking expert advice, and a good OH service can offer practical solutions for what changes may be helpful, and how you can be sure to fulfil your legal requirements.
Lead by example
Your team culture will play a huge role in how welcome disabled or chronically ill staff feel at work. In particular, the attitudes of the leaders within your team will set the tone for how your colleagues speak about and treat one another.
If those in leadership positions are seen complaining about the accommodations a team member needs, blaming them for staffing gaps or being difficult when they take time off for medical appointments, this will reinforce similar attitudes in the rest of the team. When a colleague opens up about a recent health problem, a senior team member dismissing or diminishing their struggle will be seen as a cue by others to do the same.
Leading by example is vital to create a supportive workplace environment, but it is just as important to act swiftly on any negative behaviour from other members of the team
Leading by example is vital to create a supportive workplace environment, but it is just as important to act swiftly on any negative behaviour from other members of the team. Not only will this reduce this kind of overt hostility, but it will also demonstrate that you are serious about supporting disabled or chronically ill team members. This creates a feeling of safety which will encourage individuals to come forward about their health problems sooner, meaning that you can make the necessary adjustments proactively rather than waiting for them to reach a crisis point.
Long-term illness and disability in the veterinary leader
Leadership roles do not provide immunity from long-term health conditions, but facing a new health challenge does not necessarily require a step back from management. Equally, pre-existing disability and chronic illness need not be a barrier to those wishing to take on management positions in the veterinary world – though sadly we know that disability discrimination is still common, especially around issues of employment.
Candidates for leadership positions should not be discounted because they have a chronic illness or disability. Sometimes it is assumed that they would not want the position – but this decision should be taken by the individual, not the recruitment team. Other times, a candidate is overlooked because they work part-time. Many sectors of our profession have moved towards a four-day full-time week, so even team leaders are no longer expected to be available all day, every day; less than full-time leadership roles should be a natural extension of this. Personal experience of illness should not be seen as a negative and can be an asset as a manager.
Many sectors of our profession have moved towards a four-day full-time week […]; less than full-time leadership roles should be a natural extension of this
There are now a small but increasing number of visible disabled and chronically ill veterinary leaders. Our profession needs people like these – with diverse backgrounds and life experiences – to bring their viewpoints into decision-making spaces. If you are one of these potential leaders or a current leader who has developed some health problems, then don’t let yourself be discounted – your leadership could make a significant difference to the future of the profession.
Long-term illness and disability can affect anyone, at any stage of their career. The experiences of chronically ill or disabled individuals give them unique insights and can be hugely valuable should they pursue a leadership role. However, personal experience is not a requirement for leaders to create a supportive environment. A thoughtful leader will listen to their team member’s individual needs and respond flexibly to shape a workplace which allows everyone to perform at their best.