There’s no doubt a veterinary life can be tough at times. We all exist on a sliding scale of well-being, from good to poor. While the fluctuations on this scale vary in frequency and intensity for each of us, we all experience low times and need mechanisms to recover. But who is responsible for helping us cope with the challenges and providing and delivering the means of recovery?
Is it down to us as individuals or our family, friends and colleagues? Is it the responsibility of our employers or our veterinary organisations and regulators? How about our national health and social care systems? Or is it the responsibility of our universities and colleges to help prepare us for the challenges of our vocation and life in general?
The answer to all these questions is yes! The single most important thing in life and work is people. The best patient care is delivered by well-supported, high-functioning, healthy teams empowered to realise their full potential. However, as the challenges of life are many and varied, we need every veterinary stakeholder to explore the role each has to play in supporting the individual at every stage.
Control, influence and concern
Steven Covey’s circles of concern, influence and control provide a useful framework for brainstorming what each stakeholder can do to support well-being (Figure 1).
- Areas of control tend to be smaller issues with minor impacts but they are the easiest to change or impact
- Things we can influence are often more impactful but require additional stakeholders to action change
- Areas of concern are big issues, for example climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the healthcare system. While these can cause significant worry and may indeed have the potential to make the biggest difference to our lives, it’s unlikely we will be able to impact them significantly. Therefore, time spent worrying about them is, at best, unproductive and, at worst, harmful
As individuals, we have the greatest degree of control over our habits, such as what we eat and drink, our sleep patterns and how we choose to spend our time. While this control isn’t always absolute (for example, when we have caring responsibilities or health issues), it is up to the individual to make good choices for a healthy mind, body and soul.
When our resources are sufficient, we can think about widening out to tackle more challenging areas where we can exert our influence
We can identify what recharges versus what drains our mental, physical, emotional and financial health, and then we need to exert control to ensure we find balance or a net gain of these resources. If we feel drained, we need to identify areas we control where we can quickly make small gains: for example, less social media scrolling and going to bed earlier instead.
When our resources are sufficient, we can think about widening out to tackle more challenging areas where we can exert our influence, such as improving our working conditions or getting involved with veterinary organisations. Spending time dwelling on issues in the circle of concern – which we have very little ability to impact – is often simply a drain. While it’s good to be informed of the big, global issues, we need to make sure we’re not just worrying unproductively without being able to have an impact.
While it’s good to be informed of the big, global issues, we need to make sure we’re not just worrying unproductively without being able to have an impact
What do we need from our employers to support the well-being of team members? Considering the circles of control, influence and concern for employers, the greatest area of control is working hours and conditions.
Some things that employers can control include:
- Adopting well-being practices, such as protected lunch breaks and a leave-on-time culture
- Finding what works for the team – allowing them to have their say and therefore feel empowered to influence the workplace – is key to such well-being tools making an appreciable difference
- Creating a culture where well-being is normalised and openly discussed helps to reduce stigma and encourage individual and team engagement in well-being practices
- In an age where health and social care services are stretched, more employers are helping to fill the gap through employee assistance programmes and subsidised private healthcare
- Continuing career development opportunities for individuals and the team as a whole
- Fostering inclusion and a sense of belonging for all team members
Employers may further be able to influence additional areas, such as the following:
- Encouraging shared screen-free breaks and team-building activities
- Creating an environment that makes healthy choices easier for team members by “nudging” them in the right direction, according to Thaler and Sustein’s nudge theory (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008), for example encouraging healthy eating habits by offering healthy snacks.
- Good recovery from work and healthy sleep habits for team members by creating strong boundaries and reducing contact about cases when colleagues are not on shift (NHS Employers, 2023)
- Providing wider group well-being initiatives within corporate groups
- Helping solve the workforce crisis by providing workplaces that create conditions for good recruitment and retention of staff to have long, happy careers
Organisations and the RCVS
While the regulator is there to safeguard the public, not the practitioner, it is a logical extension that healthy, high-functioning teams are better able to perform under pressure and deliver safe, effective care. Therefore, well-being and mental health support policies for teams now form part of the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme.
Veterinary organisations and regulators also have the resources to investigate what impacts well-being and create guides to tackle some of the issues. Great examples are the BVA Good Workplace Guide and the Mind Matters Initiative, the latter also partnering with other veterinary organisations to deliver everything from mental health awareness training to the veterinary well-being awards, to celebrate and share examples of good well-being support within practices.
Universities and colleges
Training institutions can provide access to pastoral support and mental health services and include well-being discussions within the curriculum. While individual departments may not be able to control these resources, they can certainly exert influence and create a culture where well-being is a priority and where help can be sought without stigma.
These educators can also use nudge theory to help students make healthy choices, for example by having very clear signposting of support systems and having them easily accessible within campuses so it does not require a special trip or a long journey to find a support office tucked in a far corner.
At a time when healthcare resources are stretched to the extreme, it is vital that the veterinary community continues to explore the shifting challenges and how to best meet the needs of ourselves, our close colleagues and the wider profession.
It is vital that the veterinary community continues to explore the shifting challenges and how to best meet the needs of ourselves, our close colleagues and the wider profession
We need to take responsibility as individuals and use our precious emotional, physical and financial resources prudently. We need employers to step up and provide safe, supportive workplace culture and value and care for the individuals. We need veterinary organisations and regulators to do their part for the research and development of well-being initiatives and solutions. We need well-being to be prioritised as a vital part of veterinary training, with good support services in place that can be accessed without fear of stigma or negative consequences.
While we’ve come a long way since I graduated, and that should be applauded, each stakeholder must not become complacent and think we’ve done “enough” for well-being. The day we can stop talking about well-being is the day mental and physical health issues in the veterinary industry are a thing of the past. Until then, as Maya Angelou said, “We do our best until we know better, then we do better.”