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Time to get practical about stress
  1. Adele Waters

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Let’s hope for sunshine this weekend. Not just because it’s a great incentive to get out and feel the benefits of being connected to nature but also because hundreds of vets will be camping at the VET Festival in Surrey. Top of the agenda will be the subject of veterinary wellness, an issue that has grown in prominence over recent years.

In the run up to the festival, event organisers carried out a survey of 524 vet professionals and their attitudes to wellness. They found the majority (84 per cent) regarded it as ‘very important’ to the success of their practice. It’s strange, then, that half said their practices do not recognise veterinary wellness as an issue and that three quarters of practices covered by the survey have no plans to introduce any kind of wellness programme.

The main reason for the lack of proactivity in this area cited by respondents was ‘staff not having time to focus on it’ (76 per cent). A lack of trained personnel to champion wellness was also a key cause (49 per cent).

These reasons are perfectly understandable, of course, but one way practices could get the ball rolling is to use Vet Record’s new ‘Balance’ section as a resource. The articles could be used to prompt team discussions on relevant issues.

For example, in this month’s section VDS training adviser Kirsty Sturman discusses simple ways to feel more in control of your life and work (p 720). Why not use this as a basis for exploring more efficient and kinder ways of working across your team so that you can honour breaks and have sufficient planning time?

And on page 721, VDS training consultant Carolyne Crowe explores the activities and people that inspire her and give her energy. Discussing this subject in your teams might help you inspire each other to make lifestyle changes or, better still, become a source of long-term motivation and support.

When I worked on a national newspaper, I remember one of the senior editors approached the health desk on a quiet news day and shouted ‘Got any fluffy ********?’ We laughed it off but it didn’t turn out quite so funny to discover that, not long afterwards, that same editor went off sick with stress.

Health isn’t ‘soft and fluffy’ territory

Health isn’t ‘soft and fluffy’ territory. There are good reasons to promote it. According to the VET Festival survey, a quarter of practices have initiated wellness programmes and, of these, 83 per cent found they have made a positive difference. Initiatives included introducing a wellness champion, a counselling service or online support.

And while there is much talk about the level of mental distress among veterinary professionals, it may be that the profession does not have such a mammoth hurdle to climb.

In this week’s research comment (pp 706–708), Jacqueline Cardwell and Elisa Lewis argue that the profession should guard itself against accepting a mental ill health label or identity. This could promote a sense of learned helplessness and determinism. They also point to the lack of hard evidence that vets are disproportionately predisposed to being mentally unhealthy.

They urge the profession to regard stress not as an illness or stigma but, instead, to develop an ‘accepting attitude’ to seeking help to manage stress. It’s about normalising the route out of a stressful life episode – something all people, not just vets, experience,

It may be that male vets need more help along this path. Research conducted among Australian veterinary students (p 709) found that male students felt more stigma about seeking psychological help than their female peers. They were also more likely to rely on humour as a coping strategy. While humour can help to manage stress, used in excess it can be unhelpful and should be regarded as a marker for psychological distress.

It would follow, then, that women may be best placed to champion wellness initiatives in the workplace and create compassionate environments where male colleagues feel comfortable to be more open about challenges. Let us know about your wellness initiatives at vet.editorial{at}bmj.com

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