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Mental health – the elephant in the consulting room

Young vets face a ‘perfect storm’ of isolation, heavy workloads and stress. Veterinary industry consultant Ross Tiffin asks how can we protect the wellbeing of the profession as this pressure looks set to increase?

People choose to become veterinary surgeons at a very young age, so it’s no surprise that such a career choice comes laden with expectation.

Recent figures for the UK show that one in six people have experienced a common mental health problem during the past week, and this figure is thought to be considerably higher for the veterinary profession.

Research shows that the two periods of highest incidence of anxiety occurs within the first year of employment and at the next stage of employment, when vets have been working for five to eight years. When questioned, 50% of graduates at this later stage felt that their career had not met their expectations.

The profession has taken steps to recognise the responsibilities that come with being a practitioner with the introduction of the Professional Development Phase (PDP). It’s a step in the right direction, although the British Veterinary Association (BVA) feels the pressures are not always fully understood by some employers.

Feelings of isolation are worse in rural locations where it can be hard to make social contact. Combined with a fear about not feeling fit for practice, this isolation has been recognised by the excellent Mind Matters Initiative, run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).

Ongoing support is crucial in combating isolation, so it’s vital that more research is done to  find out what vets really want and when it will have the most positive impact.

A number of contributory issues have been identified: long working hours, few opportunities for progression, pay and a poorly defined understanding of hierarchy within the profession.

With the current shortage of experienced vets – 50% of new registrants are from the EU – graduates are having to mature professionally in a short space of time.

A sobering set of statistics from BVA’s Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey showed that 70% of young vets did not feel supported in their professional development phase during their first year of employment. Vets are perfectionists and put themselves under huge pressure to know everything – making support simple and easy to access is a key consideration that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Fundamentally, while vet schools continue to produce veterinary scientists, there will continue to be an imbalance within the profession that is borne by employers and employees at considerable personal cost.

“The BVA recognises and takes very seriously the mental health problems and workforce issues facing vets. Every member of the veterinary family has a role to play in making workplaces supportive and nurturing places, particularly for graduates.” Gudrun Ravetz, BVA President

PEGASUS SAYS:

  • Understanding mental health challenges in the profession is the first step to help overcome key barriers to change behaviour through our communications.
  • It’s important companies research what support vets really want. We’re often trying to target decision makers and senior vets, but younger vets might be more receptive to our support.
  • Vets are perfectionists and put themselves under huge pressure to know everything and do it ‘right’. So making support simple, with a ‘down to earth’ tone is often the key to success.
  • This feeling of isolation also means that sales rep contact is likely to leave a lasting impression organisations have a real opportunity to demonstrate support and compassion.

The independent charity Vetlife offers 24/7 mental health support as well as other resources. To contact Vetlife, call 0303 040 2551 or register to send an anonymous email at www.vetlife.org.uk.

is a leading veterinary industry consultant and an expert advisor to the Pegasus Animal Health team.