Rude pet owners may be causing vets to rethink their careers

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client and co-worker incivility towards vets and veterinary nurses
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New research by Scottish researchers has found that rudeness towards veterinary staff is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression, alongside a greater risk of burnout and may prompt some to re-consider their future in the profession.

Led by psychologists at the University of Aberdeen, the research—published in Veterinary Record—looked at both client and co-worker incivility towards vets and veterinary nurses based across the UK and Ireland.

The research follows previous studies which have highlighted aggressive clients as a stressor for vets working alone, particularly when working on-call or at night.

The initial Aberdeen-led interview study focused on client incivility published in Veterinary Record in December was followed up with a more detailed questionnaire-based study examining client and co-worker incivility completed by 252 veterinary staff, currently in-press with Veterinary Record.

“Previous studies have looked at incidents of aggression but we wanted to establish the impact of low-level but more regular adverse behaviour towards veterinarians, how this is affecting their work and mental health and how they can be supported,” research leader Dr Amy Irwin said.

“The first study highlighted the importance of client behaviour, with veterinarians reporting that experiencing multiple instances of client rudeness could lead to them withdrawing from clients, either through reducing working hours or on-call commitments, or via a change in career focus.”

Despite recognising that negative behaviours from pet owners often arose from difficult circumstances, vets reported that rudeness towards them still had a detrimental impact, especially when they felt the target was themselves or their clinical abilities.

“We found that self-identity as a veterinary professional, linked to the desire to protect and help animals, was a contributing factor to responses to incivility,” Dr Irwin said.

“When that desire was questioned, or the veterinarian was blamed for a poor outcome, this had an adverse impact.”

The questionnaire results expand on the interview findings, illustrating veterinary staff can experience rudeness from both clients and co-workers with varying effects. 

Client incivility was linked to increased anxiety and risk of burnout, potentially explained by the concept of emotional labour where veterinary staff must provide professional ‘service with a smile’ even if the client is behaving rudely. 

Rudeness from senior colleagues was tied to reduced job satisfaction and increased likelihood of quitting. Veterinary nurses, in particular, may be more at risk of leaving their practice or the profession if they are not provided with support from their organisation.

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