‘Misery. It makes the working environment strained, makes people afraid about their clinical decisions, and probably affects the level of clinical care too. Results in avoidance tactics by staff and a ‘head down’ approach rather than openness and support.’- An anonymous victim of veterinary bullying.
Though for many of us bullying is an act reserved for school kids and teenagers, some are not so lucky.
In a survey of 700 vets and vet nurses, researchers found that 344 veterinary professionals had been on the receiving end of sustained harassment. That’s almost 50% of respondents .
This is in equal measure jaw-dropping and utterly unacceptable.
Considering the long-term damage bullying has on its victims, it’s no wonder so many professionals are throwing in the towel from veterinary medicine.
In this article, we deep dive into this research, looking at the causes, types, and approaches to preventing veterinary bullying.
What Is Veterinary Bullying And Why Does It Occur?
‘An ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical, and, or social behavior that intends to cause physical, social, and, or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.’- The National Center Against Bullying 
Instances of bullying can be obvious (overt) or discreet (covert), affecting victims in distinct but varying ways.
Types of bullying behaviors commonly seen in practice include (but are not limited to):
– Belittlement in front of staff members
– Persistent unfair critiquing and nitpicking
– Workplace gossiping
– Authority undermining
These bullying incidents can occur for several reasons.
While veterinary teams can become close, they can also become cliquey. If un-managed, these cliques can take over and cause a great deal of distress to those excluded. A culture of blame can also lead to an ‘us versus them’ culture. This can be weaponized by cliques, creating further conflict.
Bullying in practice can also occur when there is a clash of personalities. This is why it is crucial to recruit based on values (not just skills), as the wrong recruit may cause imbalance. If mismanaged, a culture of bullying can become so ingrained in practice it is almost impossible to stamp out:
One anonymous vet respondent to the qualitative survey commented:
‘After more than ten years of experiencing this behavior, I seriously doubted whether vet work in the UK was compatible with a sane life for me. I eventually came across a happy, healthy practice that highlighted how awful and disgusting MANY practices are and, usually, are revealed to have a long history of this conduct amongst staff that has been knowingly tolerated, condoned, or actively led by owners. Happy, healthy positive practices are rare.’
How Bullying Hurts Its Victims
A constant onslaught of emotional (and sometimes physical abuse) can wear a person down.
Anxiety, depression, and chronic stress are all feelings commonly experienced by bullied individuals. If the bullying is pervasive and unrelenting, victims may experience a complete breakdown or even suicidal ideation.
Many victims question their ability to practice, becoming withdrawn and apathetic to veterinary life. Without intervention, professionals may opt to leave the profession entirely, thoroughly disillusioned.
How To Bust Bullying In Your Veterinary Practice
Thankfully, there are some things practice managers, owners, or even colleagues can do to prevent or deal with bullying.
Institute An Anti-Bullying Policy
First and foremost, you need to implement an anti-bullying policy. Research has shown that such policies can effectively decrease bullying incidents- if properly implemented.
If your practice hasn’t got one already, you should create or acquire a ‘zero-tolerance bullying’ policy. This policy should outline what behaviors encapsulates ‘bullying’ and what repercussions there are. However, these policies are only effective if published, discussed, and then followed up with action. It may seem harsh, but living by and, if necessary, firing by your values is the best way to protect practice culture.
In addition to a zero-tolerance policy, you should set up some additional support for affected staff members, as well as a ‘code of conduct’ for your practice. This code of conduct should articulate the desirable behaviors that embody your practice values (aka, how you want your team to act).
Hire Based On Values
Speaking of values, if you want to prevent bullying in your practice, you’re going to have to hire people who share and act out your practice values too.
Creating a healthy and happy team should be at the top of your objectives as a leader. As such, you need to dedicate time and attention to the skills and steps required to hire for values fit.
Utilize values-based interview techniques and back this up with personality tests to evaluate how potential recruits will fit into your team. What personalities are there currently on your team? How would a new teammate fit into this people puzzle?
Ultimately, you want to have a good balance of personalities who can complement each other and work well together, rather than against each other.
Polish Up Your Management Skills
A common complaint made by bullying victims is managerial inaction. Veterinary practice managers who are ill-equipped with the skills to deal with interpersonal conflict may exacerbate the situation inadvertently, depending on their response.
Inaction allows bullying behavior to persist (setting a toxic cultural norm within a practice). On the other hand, overinvolvement may result in a full-blown breakdown in relationships. Feedback skills and interpersonal conflict training are, therefore, essential to learn and deploy for all managers hoping to grow and maintain healthy workplace culture .
Create A Psychologically Safe Space
Work can be stressful at the best of times, let alone when bullying happens within its walls.
As a veterinary team leader, it is your responsibility to prevent or deal with this. And in doing so, help to make your workplace as psychologically safe as possible.
Although instituting policies and pursuing additional training can seem like a lot of effort, it will pay off in terms of workplace happiness and satisfaction. Ultimately, healthy, happy workspaces are more profitable because the team is more engaged, and people will stick around. Happy people do better work. And managers of happy teams are almost certainly doing their well-being the world of good due to the stress reduction.
If you liked this, then you might also like to read about: The dark world of veterinary cyberbullying.
1- ‘Behaviour in veterinary practice – VetSurgeon.org.’ https://www.vetsurgeon.org/behaviour.pdf. Accessed 30 Jul. 2021.
2- ‘Definition Of Bullying | National Centre Against Bullying.’ https://www.ncab.org.au/bullying-advice/bullying-for-parents/definition-of-bullying/. Accessed 29 Jul. 2021.
3- ‘Behaviour in veterinary practice – VetSurgeon.org.’ https://www.vetsurgeon.org/behaviour.pdf. Accessed 30 Jul. 2021.