Resilience for veterinary professionals

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resilience for veterinary professionals
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Promoting resilience at an individual, practice and profession level helps vets flourish in the face of adversity. Here’s why resilience is more than a buzzword. By Angela Tufvesson

Being a vet can be a tough gig. You’re making life-and-death decisions, managing the pressure of keeping clients happy and satisfied, and juggling an overwhelming workload. 

That vets are at higher risk of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout than most is well documented, and the profession focuses a great deal of attention on these negative mental health outcomes. 

But there is another approach—one that looks at the challenges facing vets from a more optimistic standpoint and promotes positive adaptation to adversity. It’s summed up by a word, or buzzword, that you’re probably familiar with: resilience. 

Better than before

Instead of dwelling on problems or becoming overwhelmed, resilience encourages you to harness an inner strength that helps you bounce back. 

“Resilience, over time, helps us with our inner belief that, ‘I can do this even in the face of challenges and adversity. I have the necessary personal capacities and contextual supports to overcome these challenges’,” explains Associate Professor Michelle McArthur from the School of Animal and Veterinary Science at The University of Adelaide.

Crucially, resilience is about more than overcoming tough times and an absence of stress or mental health problems. “Resilience is thriving in the face of adversity,” says Associate Professor Martin Cake, associate dean of learning and teaching at Murdoch University School of Veterinary Medicine.

“The outcome is not necessarily bouncing back to the previous state. It’s learning and building capacity so you end up better than when you started, or at least more capable of resisting a future challenge. True resilience is more than coping, which is simply persisting in the face of adversity.”

He says understanding and cultivating resilience promotes enjoyment of work—and life. “You’re not aiming to go from minus eight back to zero. You want to be permanently tracking along a seven or eight out of 10 on a positive scale.”

Resilience in practice

So important is resilience to the profession that it’s now a key component of university training. A/Prof McArthur introduced a wellbeing and communication skills program that incorporates resilience as part of the veterinary science degree at The University of Adelaide and A/Prof Cake teaches resilience in the veterinary context as part of Murdoch University’s Veterinary Professional Life program.

What professional goals have you developed since graduating? What gives you purpose in your professional life and are you engaging in work experiences that tap into that? This will help with motivation too because motivation and resilience are positively related.

A/Prof Michelle McArthur, University of Adelaide School of Animal and Veterinary Science 

There is growing understanding, in the literature and in practice, that resilience is not an individual personality trait, but something that is dynamic and exists in context. “Somebody might be resilient in one situation and not in another; it’s not an innate capacity,” A/Prof Cake says. 

This means—and it’s a big, important learning—that the environments in which vets work are intrinsically linked to resilience. 

“It’s partly personal factors and it’s partly your social and work environment that you draw resilience from. So you’ve got to then talk about whole-system resilience—it might be a practice, it might be a veterinary hospital, it might be a whole profession. They all have characteristics that influence resilience outcomes of the people within them.” 

For practice owners, A/Prof McArthur says cultivating a positive workplace culture fosters resilience. “Be aware of how staff relate and interact with each other, and the culture that is created. Is there an environment of psychological safety, including one where people can bring their full selves to work?” she says. “Consider mechanisms and sources of support such as mentoring and peer-to-peer support.” 

Reasonable working hours are another important factor. “Give people reasonable hours to work rather expecting them to work open-endedly and stack up 70 or 80 hours a week,” suggests David Foote, a vet, counsellor and educator who specialises in wellbeing in veterinary professionals.  

Even small changes like allocating dedicated time for writing case notes can help to alleviate stress and promote resilience at a practice level. “A lot of people get through their consults but don’t have time to write case notes. Some practices now give vets a dedicated period, say between 1pm and 2pm each day, to write up case notes or call owners back,” Foote says. 

Finding your sweet spot

Individuals, too, can make choices and adopt habits to better adapt to adversity and thrive at work. “The right amount of challenge in your work is really important,” A/Prof Cake advises. “Too little or too much challenge is bad, so it’s finding that sweet spot that keeps you engaged and active in your work but doesn’t push you into a red zone.”

A/Prof McArthur says goal setting can help vets to find a healthy balance. “What professional goals have you developed since graduating? What gives you purpose in your professional life and are you engaging in work experiences that tap into that? This will help with motivation too because motivation and resilience are positively related.”

And the oft-repeated self-care triad of sleep, exercise and diet can set the foundation for a resilient mindset. “Sleep should be sacrosanct. Most of us get half an hour to an hour less than what we need,” Foote says. “It’s easy to dismiss a healthy diet and regular exercise, but they have a real impact on psychological wellbeing and can make all the difference in getting through a tough day.

“It’s never too early or too late to start building resilience.”

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