Finding Wellbeing in Veterinary Practice

As part of the VetSoc Wellbeing Week at Nottingham Vet School, I was invited to join a panel of other vets to share our experience of well-being in practice, particularly as new graduates. The whole week was organised by the students themselves (with a monster effort from Zara Abas) which shows how invested our next generation are in encouraging well-being for themselves and their new colleagues. When I first started this blog it was completely anonymous; for some reason one of the main groups of people I was particularly anxious about reading it was my work colleagues, and even scarier: the wider veterinary world. But as frightening as it is to share a personal blog or stand up in front of your peers and be honest about your own struggles in practice, it is an enormous privilege to be given the chance to contribute to such an amazing profession.

The panel was made up of some pretty incredible vets: Ebony Escalona (founder of Vets, Stay, Go, Diversify), Neil Smith (Vetlife trustee and former RCVS president), Charlotte Whincup (VDS training), Andy Rose (Army vet, and co-founder of Vet Fit) and Ben Sweeney (Simply Locums), oh and me – a recent graduate who runs but not that well and writes a blog. It’s safe to say that my imposter syndrome, which was something we discussed a lot, started fairly immediately!

Well being veterinary panel
From the left: Ben, Neil, Me, Zara, Andy, Ebony and Charlotte

Finding Your First Job

We began by talking about first jobs, and lots of students were anxious about how they would know if a practice was right for them. Ben reminded us that interviews are two-way streets: they are as much for you to interview the practice as for them to interview you. Even better, request a taster day to see how things run. Take note of how staff interact, if they’re practicing the level of care you want to deliver, and if anyone gets their lunch-break! Both Ebony and Neil recommended talking to an assistant on their own, if possible the person you are replacing. Another great idea from Neil was asking about the track-record of new graduates in the practice – have they had new graduates before, are they all still there or have they all left after six months? Some practices absolutely love having new graduates to grow to become the type of vet they want to keep – a much smaller section of practices see it as a cheap work-force. Ask them why they would like to employ a new graduate rather than an experienced vet.

Ok, so you’ve had an interview, you smashed it and they’ve offered you the position. How do you know if the job is right for you? It can be helpful to try and imagine yourself in that job on a bad day. Is that idyllic James-Herriot practice in the darkest depths of the countryside, hours away from your family, suddenly going to feel isolating? Is the highly-prized hospital internship living on-site, on-call every night going to seriously affect your mental health? Or do you know that you absolutely thrive in those environments and have the coping mechanisms and support networks to see you through?

We are all different, so be honest about what factors are important to you. It can be helpful to make a list of must-haves, for instance a maximum distance from your family, maximum weekly working hours, on-call, or having other young vets in the practice.  It’s easy to be flattered in to a role that isn’t right, so write those non-negotiable factors down at the beginning, and stick to them.

Ben gave us some parting words when thinking about our first job: “take any and every opportunity, invest in yourself, and remember that both good and bad experiences teach you something. Value yourself and never be afraid to ask for help”.

Well-being in practice

Once we’d got finding your first job nailed, we moved on to thriving in practice. We used some excellent modern technology called Sli.do which allows students to text in their questions anonymously; this gave way to some really honest and personal discussion. One of the big themes was managing mental health in practice. We all have mental health, and it is something each of us needs to protect, whether you’ve ever had a mental health problem yet or not. Being a new graduate is wonderful and exciting, but we’re also vulnerable to suffering from poor wellbeing:

We are often high-achievers, so going from being very good at something to (initially) being the weakest member of the team can be tough. Sometimes we move to new areas without a ready-built support network. On top of this we assume everyone else if having a great time, nailing the whole vet-thing, and making loads of new friends – it’s what it says on their Facebook right? And when such a lot of your energy is going into simply surviving this huge learning curve, it is all too easy to de-prioritise socialising, sleeping, hobbies, cooking-nourishing-food-not-microwaving-rubbish, exercising, sleeping enough. You get the picture!

Ok, so now I’ve thoroughly depressed you (don’t worry you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time, we just want you to be prepared for the lower moments) here’s a summary of the tips the panel had for taking care of your wellbeing in those first few years:

Prioritise the basics: sleep enough, eat well, exercise, leave on time when you can, and stay in touch with friends and family. “Take time to look after yourself, you will be a better vet for it in the long run” – Andy

Take your lunch break: A small but mighty one. If, like me, a little alone-time is important to you then go out for a walk, if socialising is how you switch off then try take lunch as a team.

Talk about it: be honest with your peers when you’re struggling– you’ll probably find you all feel exactly the same. And if you’re really struggling, get help – “the sooner you get help, the sooner you will be better again” – Charlotte

Make time for hobbies: Lots of us are great at doing sports or clubs at vet school, but it’s easy to let this slide as a new graduate. You need to have things in your life outside veterinary. You may have worked almost your whole life to become a vet, but you are so much more than that. “Veterinary is what I do, not what I am” – Andy

Don’t stay in a bad job: there are so many tools to help you manage your first job, both clinical and non-clinical. But all the tools in the world won’t help if you do really find yourself in a bad job for you. “You’re not a tree, move” – Ebony (this was the favourite quote of the evening!)

Reading the questions coming in on Sli.do, not on Facebook, promise!

What if I already have a mental health problem?

We also had a few questions about how to manage in practice if you know you already have a mental health problem. As the chair of the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative, Neil reminded of some important statistics: 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem this year and 1 in 2 across our whole life times. So, if you know you suffer from a mental health problem, and you’re worrying about how to cope with this in practice, the first thing you need to know is that you are so absolutely not alone – not in the world, and certainly not in veterinary.

If you already know you have a mental health issue Ebony gave some refreshingly open advice about how to approach discussing this with your boss: be honest from the beginning, tell them your triggers, how they can recognise if you’re struggling, your own coping strategies and the best way for the practice to help you both in terms of preventing problems, and if you’re having trouble.

Charlotte helped us with the different avenues for finding support, be it talking to a friend, a colleague, your GP or calling Vetlife. You can even start with posting anonymously on a veterinary support forum: VSGD, Vet Voices, and Vetsnet are all great communities. And ultimately, being open with the practice and your colleagues, where possible, is almost always a really positive move. If people don’t know you’re struggling, they don’t know that you need support.

For my input, I wanted to remind everyone that most people are kind, and the veterinary community are one of the kindest. I wrote about sharing my miscarriage with my work colleagues here, so I won’t go into it too much, but once I told everyone not only was a huge weight lifted, I suddenly realised I’d been upset with my colleagues for expecting me to be my normal self. How unfair is that when they had no idea anything had happened! If you give other people the chance to support you, nine times out of ten you’ll find they exceed your expectations.

And what if they don’t? Worse-case scenario is that your boss is rubbish, they say all the wrong things and don’t offer you any support. Yep, there is a chance that might happen. But, to repeat the favourite quote of the night: You’re not a tree, move! Any decent practice will respect your honesty and value the strength it took to give it. If they don’t, they aren’t worth your effort.

Imposter Syndrome

To finish, I’d like to give a little note to imposter syndrome, which I mentioned at the start and I know I frequently face both as a vet and a runner. There were so many questions around not feeling good enough whether it is not knowing enough, not being quick enough, or worrying about not being able to cope. Despite their incredible CVs every single member of that panel admitted to still feeling like imposters–whether they were two years graduated like me, or twenty. And I thought was really powerful. In veterinary it hasn’t been commonplace to admit weakness or self-doubt. This feeds an unrealistic view of what it means to be a vet, and how we think we are meant to feel once we graduate. To hear RCVS presidents admit they have days where they feel low or doubt themselves shows just how much times are changing.

It’s hard to sum up everything that we talked about and capture the sentiment of such an inspiring discussion. But I hope that there is something in here that can resonate with everyone. We are all human, we all have doubts and worries, we all feel like imposters sometimes, we all make mistakes; importantly we are all still learning.

Let’s be part of the change that we are seeing.

Veterinary wellbeing

If you’re struggling, get help. Vetlife Helpline: 0303 040 2551

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