Saying ‘no’ is not as easy as it sounds - Veterinary Practice
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Saying ‘no’ is not as easy as it sounds

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

JUST SAY “NO”, VETS WERE TOLD DURING ONE OF THE LECTURES AT THE BSAVA congress recently. Vet Anne-Marie Svendsen Aylott told delegates it was their job to recognise when too much was being asked of them, not the job of the business they were working for. While I agree with her up to a point, that is much easier said than done.

Surely businesses themselves have an important part to play in recognising and managing workplace stress. Most have policies in place with regard to this, so do her words imply that these policies are nothing more than words on paper designed to “look good” but nothing else? Unfortunately, I suspect this is closer to the truth than many employers would care to admit.

I have worked in places where any resistance to comply with what is being asked is looked on not with admiration that one is being so rational and self-preserving, but as something that really isn’t in keeping with the practice spirit/ethos.

Bosses, be they managers or owners, can make the workplace very uncomfortable for a “maverick”. And while employees supposedly have the protection of the law against things like workplace bullying and constructive dismissal, one has to be pretty tenacious and robust to pursue a case to the bitter end and it is likely to bring about its own form of stress.

Couple that with the relatively small size of the profession, social media, and the ability to Google anybody and find out if there is anything on their record (like a perfectly legitimate industrial tribunal ruling in their favour), and having that initial confidence to say “no” could make finding another job very difficult indeed.

Why employ a potential “troublemaker”, regardless of the righteousness of their case, when there is someone else available who does not have that “stain” against their name?

As an example I remember many years ago working in a fairly large and progressive practice. During the interview for the job, one of the things that sold it to me was the fact that all vets had a half-day off each week to help compensate for weekend working. Great I thought, what a sensible idea.

All went well for the first few weeks and then I discovered that when any vet was away on annual leave, none of the other vets could have their half-day because of the need to cover for the missing person – which essentially meant that I only got to have a half-day a week for half the year.

I objected to working on my half-day for no extra pay or compensatory time off, with good humour at first, but with growing frustration when the two partners insisted that I wasn’t putting the needs of the practice first and that there wasn’t “any more money” to pay for an extra half-day’s work.

The atmosphere became increasingly acrimonious and then the matriarchal office manager got whiff of my obstinacy and stuck her oar in as well. So poisonous was the atmosphere about the place that I eventually relented and accepted the “rules”, but it clearly demonstrates that trying to say “no” is unlikely to be met with much joy by the “Piper”! This doesn’t just happen in small organisations either. Some large companies and government departments can also make things very unpleasant for an employee who doesn’t “toe the line”.

Workplace bullying is a very fluid concept and difficult to prove, especially when a person doesn’t have the benefit of foresight to see in advance how a situation is going to develop. Things can turn nasty without any overt action being taken.

A look or a word (or the lack of a word) can, over time, begin to exert a toll on a person without there being anything concrete by way of evidence to “stand up in court”. Body language and facial expression, nuances of language and ambiguous meanings can create situations of great unpleasantness.

This can be far more stressful than just saying “yes” to everything that is thrown at you, regardless of how overwhelmed one might feel at what one is already taking on. Saying “no” rarely has the benign consequences Ms Svendsen Aylott seems to suggest it might have. Why has this underlying situation developed in this way? I am sure it is more complicated than I can adequately understand or explain. However, part of the explanation must lie with the still rather archaic attitude to work that many older vets in particular seem to possess.

To some of my colleagues, working all those long hours is still seen as some sort of badge of honour where chronic tiredness and the lack of time to have any sort of normal family life or social life is almost revered.

Most younger colleagues don’t want to fit in with this work ethic (which partly accounts for the high number of young vets who leave the profession), especially when they see all their friends with other careers plastered over Facebook and seemingly having a “whale of a time”.

But the pressure to conform is often huge and, as I explained earlier in this piece, kicking against the status quo is rarely greeted with warmth and encouragement.

The solution is not easy to find. There will always be some people who are able to say “no” with a smile on their face or to deflect work requests with the ease that actor David Carradine deflected flying knives and other missiles in the iconic seventies TV series Kung Fu.

Indeed, I have something of a reputation for using such deflective techniques myself and seem to be able to get away with it. But not everyone is good at doing that and the deflectors (myself included) are usually concerned that their own preservation techniques might simply be piling more work onto already overwhelmed colleagues.

So while I applaud Ms Svendsen Aylott’s motives in urging colleagues to just say “no”, unless there is a change in attitude at the top, i.e. among management, some other poor soul will have to pick up the tab. Which probably means another premature departure from the profession to seek a different career or, with sad and devastating consequences, something very much worse.

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