Working in the veterinary profession can be stressful, especially during a global pandemic – we have recently seen that vet nurses are experiencing heightened levels of pandemic induced stress, for example. However, what happens when stress becomes prolonged? This can result in longer term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In fact, Mind reports that 1 in 6 people at work experience mental health issues.
Clearly, with the veterinary profession suffering a suicide rate 4 times that of the general population, mental health needs to be tackled. As a practice manager, positive mental health is something you must build into your practice culture.
Whilst, as a veterinary practice manager, you cannot control individual employees’ personal lives or extraneous circumstances, you are in control of keeping in regular contact with your team, recognising the signs of mental ill health early and managing them responsibly and appropriately.
This does not mean you have to become an expert in mental health. But, by following the steps outlined in this article, you will start to cultivate a positive practice culture which means that potential mental ill health in your team is alleviated quickly, and before it becomes potentially life threatening.
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Shift Your Perception of Mental Health
Mental health is just as important as physical health. This is all too true in veterinary medicine, where we must look after both our physical health (when lifting animals, for example) and our mental health (dealing with the stresses of treating patients).
However, there is still a stigma. A Mind survey revealed that one in five people felt they couldn’t tell their boss if they were overly stressed at work and less than half of people diagnosed with a mental health problem had told their manager.
Therefore, as a practice manager, you must ensure that you value the mental health of your team and that this filters through. You could even make positive mental health a feature of your values list.
For example, one of your values might be positivity. In order to grow positivity in your practice, you could have regular team socials, regular check-in meetings primarily concerned with mental health, and regular non-clinical skills training sessions.
Another simple way to express this is through signage in your veterinary practice, particularly in staff communal areas. This could be a poster that reads: ‘we at [insert practice] pledge to support your mental health’.
Check out RCVS’s pledge to mental wellness here
What’s Causing Stress in Your Practice?
Review your current procedures and identify where the ‘pinch points’ for experiencing stress are. You could have a team meeting to help with this. Common pinch points might be the length of consultations and the pressure to come up with an answer in this time, the client ‘handover’ to reception after a consultation, or on-call duties/shift work. A good way to discuss this with your team is to ask each member to discuss a ‘day in the life’ and identify the moments in which they feel the most stressed: the key to managing mental health in your practice is to get everyone involved.
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After you have identified the key pinch points, you can decide whether to implement additional measures, change procedures, or introduce training. For example, if multiple team members are experiencing stress at a certain time of the day, you could introduce a one hour ‘firebreak’ where they can complete administrative tasks, and re-charge before seeing clients again.
If team members find communicating with clients stressful, you could arrange additional skills training for communication and emotional intelligence.
Recognise the Signs
In order to manage mental health in your veterinary practice effectively, you should stay in regular contact with your team by having regular check-ins. These could be brief weekly or bi-weekly calls, just to ask how they are getting on, if they are having any problems or if there is anything in particular that they would like to discuss. By keeping in regular contact, you will be able to recognise the signs of mental ill health early. Indeed, the most common reason for veterinarians contacting the charity VetLife is because of work-induced stress that is spiralling out of control.
Signs of mental ill health could include:
Taking an increasing amount of time off work
Becoming more emotional: does the team member react emotionally in a way that is out of character to colleagues and clients?
Dwelling on negative experiences
Displaying noticeable differences in behaviour: they might feel restless and unable to concentrate
Changing your practice culture in order to manage mental health in your veterinary practice will take time, but by discussing mental health openly you will begin to normalise the subject. This will mean that your employees will feel able to come to you if they have a problem, instead of letting their feelings spiral out of control.
If you notice signs of mental ill health in an individual, it’s time to talk. This needn’t be awkward or difficult, but here are few tips for having the conversation:
Choose a private place: do not discuss individual details in front of the team, and reassure the individual that the meeting is confidential.
Ask simple, open and non-judgmental questions: let the individual explain in their own words how their mental health problem manifests, the triggers, how it impacts on their work and what support they need.
Listen carefully and respond flexibly: make sure you are listening intently and be prepared to be flexible. For example, the individual may need some time off work, need some tasks delegated for a certain period of time or require additional support and/or training.
Develop an action plan: at the end of the meeting, be clear as to exactly how you are going to help your team member overcome the issue. Together, you should identify the signs of their mental health problem, triggers for stress, the possible impact on their work, who to contact in a crisis, and what support they need. The plan should include an agreed time to review the support measures to see if they’re working.
Always encourage team members to seek further support if they feel they need it. Use the following lost of resources:
Mental Health America – call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
State Wellbeing Programs for Veterinary Professionals – Numerous states have wellbeing programs to help veterinary personnel and their families.
National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Mind charity – call 0300 123 3393
Remploy aims to help people remain in (or return to) their role after experiencing mental ill health – call 0300 4568114
Rethink Mental Illness – call 0300 5000 927
Samaritans – call 116 123
Beyond Blue – call 1300 22 4636
Mental Health Australia – access the website (linked) for a list of resources
Lifeline Australia – 131 114
Make Mental Health a Priority
Managing mental health in your veterinary practice should be a priority right now. Although you cannot control many of the difficulties your employees might be going through – particularly in their personal lives – work plays a huge part in inducing stress. As a manager, you must therefore be open to discussion, remove any taboo surrounding mental ill health in your veterinary practice, know the signs of mental ill health and act quickly.
If you found this article useful, you should check out the VetX ebook developed especially with veterinary leaders in mind. Hear directly from veterinary professionals on the front line as they discuss the most important aspects of leading a team. Access your FREE ebook here.