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Mastering uncertainty in veterinary practice

Veterinary staff should recognise that they may not be able to work as efficiently in a global health crisis as they would during normal times and can learn from the experience of people working in other sectors

Living in uncertain times – like those that we have experienced over the past year – can be emotionally draining. But for some of those working to maintain the health and welfare of the nation’s animals, the strain has been so great that it has started to undermine their own mental and physical well-being.

Yet, rather than feeling powerless in the face of the pressures imposed on veterinary practices by the COVID emergency, vets and vet nurses can learn how to deal with an unpredictable working environment and stay strong in mind and body, according to speakers in a session at the BSAVA 2021 virtual congress.

The session on mastering uncertainty was sponsored by Veterinary Practice and featured contributions from Carolyne Crowe, head of training at the Veterinary Defence Society, and Alan Robinson, founder of the Vet Dynamics business consultancy.

Carolyne Crowe explained the physiological basis for seeing uncertainty as harmful, especially when experienced over a sustained period. The brain interprets uncertainty as a potential threat which stimulates the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional responses – and creates a state of anxiety that will gradually sap the person’s energy, she explained.

However, techniques exist for training the mind to cope more effectively with uncertainty and to reduce the impact of these physiological responses. Carolyne recommended that people write a list of all those issues that are causing them concern at work or at home. This will give them a better insight into those problems: ones that are within their power to control and those they may have some influence over through changing the attitudes or behaviour of other people.

Then, there is a third category of problems that the person has no power to control or influence, and so it is pointless worrying about them. “You can use this exercise as a tool to determine where you are going to spend your mental, physical and emotional energy,” she said.

Alan Robinson believed that having a high or low tolerance of uncertainty was an innate part of a person’s character, but he agreed that those people who are adversely affected by unpredictable or chaotic situations need not despair – they can be trained to develop greater tolerance, he said.

The most important step is to establish a daily schedule, “your secret weapon against anxiety”. Ensuring that time is set aside for essential activities such as eating, sleeping, exercise and relaxation will provide structure amid chaos and anchors your mind to the present moment, he explained.

Veterinary staff can learn from the experience of people working in other sectors, he suggested. In a crisis, airline pilots are warned to avoid trying to rise to the challenge and to make decisions on the fly, as people who are stressed may display poor-quality decision making. He therefore recommended that in an uncertain situation, people should fall back on established systems and processes to get them out of trouble.

Veterinary staff should also recognise that they may not be able to work as efficiently in a global health crisis as they would during normal times, Alan noted. So it makes sense for people “to move the goalposts” for what they hope to achieve each day and set themselves smaller and more realistic targets. Accomplishing any task, however small it may be, will provide a degree of satisfaction that will help maintain one’s motivation, he said.

Another trick that people can use to maintain a positive approach to their work is to give themselves regular rewards. “It is important to find joy in the small things in life and to wallow in moments of pleasure,” he said.

Colleagues should also make sure that they are looking after their bodies as well as their minds, he continued. Physical exercise is important for both – “by moving your body you are reminding your brain that you retain agency… it reminds you that you are not helpless, you can still act independently and make your own choices”.

One of the worst aspects of the past year has been the need to observe social distancing regulations, which has reduced our opportunities to form connections with other people. “We are all in this together and if you are feeling lonely then you must resist the urge to look inwards for answers. You can take action by supporting someone else,” said Alan Robinson. Technological developments, such as online communications software, have made it much easier to establish and maintain contacts with other people, even if face-to-face interactions are still being discouraged, he said.

Asked what veterinary staff should do if they see that a colleague appears to be struggling to cope with the current uncertainties, both speakers agreed that it was vital to talk to that person and to try to understand the cause of their concerns. This is particularly important if a colleague appears to be acting unreasonably. “You need to engage with people and ask why they are behaving as they are. Very few people go to work with the intention of being difficult and so just try to be kind,” he said.