Sunday, November 13, 2022

Wellbeing and veterinarians - thoughts from the New Zealand Veterinary Association's wellbeing symposium

NZVA wellbeing symposium
The New Zealand Veterinary Association hosted its first symposium on veterinary wellbeing

I’ve just returned from the New Zealand Veterinary Association’s first ever wellbeing symposium, held in Christchurch. I was invited there to speak about ethics rounds, an intervention designed to help veterinary team members with ethically challenging situations that can lead to moral stress, moral distress, or even moral injury. More on that in a later post.

The reason for today’s post is to share a couple of the themes discussed at the symposium.

The MC, Dr Charlotte (Lotte) Cantley, opened the symposium with an incredible account of her recovery following a catastrophic and near fatal horse-riding accident (the horse was okay), and a grueling schedule of treatment and rehabilitation. According to Lotte, “resilience is not bouncing back to how we were but being flexible, adapting to and embracing the uncomfortable changes life throws at us”.

Given her account, uncomfortable is an understatement.

So here is my take on the major themes of the first day.

Collegiality and compassion

One thing that came through loud and clear was that one of the biggest impediments to the wellbeing of veterinary team members is, well, other veterinary team members. The way we treat one another, whether we are aware of it or not, impacts us. As speaker after speaker raised this issue, heads around the room nodded. Tears were quietly shed.

Sonja Olson, author of Creating Wellbeing and Building Resilience in the Veterinary Profession, argued that we need to stop referring to communication and people skills as “soft skills” and name them what they are – power skills, tools that improve collegiality, understanding, shared decision making, adherence to negotiated recommendations and ultimately, good clinical and policy outcomes.

Dana Carver, from GoodYarn (an evidence-based, peer-delivered mental health literacy program  , talked about situations that negatively impact our mental health. As she said, when we suffer an obvious “sudden negative change or event” (like the death of a family member), people tend to be demonstrative in their care. They swoop in with offers of assistance. They make casseroles. But what happens when we experience other things that negatively impact our mental health? According to Dana, these include things like a lack of justice, a lack of life balance, relationship problems, poor physical health or chronic pain? In these situations, we aren’t good at asking for help…and people may not offer it. What we can do is make time, or make an effort to connect in some way. Its better to do something, ask the question, say something, than worry about looking like an idiot. I could recall plenty of missed opportunities to extend support to someone, to make that casserole.

We heard a lot about implementing wellbeing plans into practice, and ensuring that this was more than just promoting a token day. Stephen Hopkinson, the founder of a large dairy practice surveyed his own staff to ensure that the wellbeing plan subsequently developed would actually meet their needs. To his surprise, they found that gossip, negative comments, exclusion and not helping others were the number 1 things negatively impacting staff.

Sometimes this is coming from a place of anxiety or hurt. Those behaving this way may not even be aware that they are having this impact.

He argued that we need to ensure that the discussion about mental wellbeing isn’t just about vets. All team members need recognition. Hence his team celebrate:

  • -        National Administrative Professionals day (April 26)
  • -        World Veterinary Day (April 30)
  • -        National Receptionist day (10 May)
  • -        Veterinary Nurse and Technician Appreciation day (14 October)

Because winters are cold in New Zealand, they also run “soup days” in winter – providing staff with a small budget to buy ingredients on the practice account, so they can make soups and share with the team. According to them, this marries well with the “5 Ways to Wellbeing”:

  1. Keep learning – learn a new soup recipe
  2. Be active – dance and sing when you make the soup
  3. Give – share the end product
  4. Take-notice – mindfully sip your soup
  5. Connect – rate each other’s soups, swap recipes, and cook together
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing bookmark, produced by the Mental Health Foundation 

Denise Quinlan, who acknowledged that everyone gets crispy, shared her strategies:

  • -        Prioritise ruthlessly (so if someone asks you to do something new, which thing on your to do list do you need to bump?)
  • -        Promote autonomy in the workplace
  • -        Support one another
  • -        Value each other
  • -        Act fairly (avoid those perceived injustices)
  • -        Provide clarity (lack of clarity about job roles was a big reason for people to be disgruntled at work)

Her colleague, Paula Davis (author of Beating Burnout at Work ), provided a list of “Tiny Noticeable Things” that we can do at work to help demonstrate that we value each other.

Beating Burnout at Work Paula Davis
Source: Paula Davis, Beating Burnout at Work.

Imposter syndrome

Every speaker admitted that they have imposter syndrome. In fact, Sonja has given hers a name (I won’t share it here, you’ll have to ask her).

Imposter syndrome is well-documented among the general population, as well as veterinary team members . It tends to flare when we try something new, or perform in front of our peers, or start a new job. In a profession where life and death and animal welfare and human wellbeing so often hang in the balance, imposter syndrome can serve us well, driving us to improve, not to rest on our laurels. No one could pin down a guaranteed way to manage imposter syndrome without throwing the baby out with the bathwater…but it helps to know that imposter syndrome is something that everyone struggles with – and probably gets worse the higher we achieve.

Massey University Dean of Veterinary Education Jenny Weston did remind everyone that we can ultimately be our own worst colleagues – engaging in critical, judgmental, and negative self-talk that we would never extend to anyone else. Not only did she have everyone up on the dancefloor – she commandeered a team of well-practiced back-up dancers.

Rather than worrying about our own imposter syndrome (she/he/they are, realistically, probably not going to leave us – as per above, they do serve us well on occasion), maybe it’s more productive to recognise that others are experiencing this too, and be aware of the way we might impact those around us by inadvertently reenforcing that, and perhaps not doing enough to show our appreciation.