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Damaging responses provoked by stress

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01 April 2009, at 12:00am

Stress and poor morale caused by heavy workloads leave veterinary surgeons vulnerable to developing problems with drugs and alcohol, according to German researchers.

 A study of 1,060 vets in northern Germany, carried out by Melanie Harling from the Institution for Statutory Accident Insurance and Prevention in Hamburg, examines the complex relationships between stress and some of the damaging responses that it provokes – binge drinking, tobacco consumption and drug use.

 The findings, published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, builds on studies from Australia, New Zealand and the UK showing that veterinarians suffer from high levels of work-related psychosocial stress and confirms that this often results in some form of self medication.

 About 30% of male and 33% of female respondents to the study admitted to “high risk” patterns of alcohol consumption or binge drinking. About 20% were smokers and about 2% were regular users of psychotropic drugs, tranquillisers, antidepressives, opioids or neuroleptics.

Worst affected 

Stress and the resulting problems were more common in practitioners than in vets in academia, industry or government service. Those that owned their own practices were more affected than employees and, overall, about 6% admitted to being demoralised by the pressures of their work.

 “The main factors found in our study for psychological stress were time pressure due to heavy workloads, difficulties in balancing one’s professional and social life, dealing with difficult customers, insufficient free time and longer working hours.

 “These factors should be considered if programmes or strategies to reduce psychosocial stress in the veterinary profession are implemented,” Melanie Harling said.

 David Bartram is an industry vet with an interest in addressing the problems with poor psychological health in the veterinary profession. He is currently studying part time for a PhD in this subject at the University of Southampton.

 “The paper is a useful contribution to the literature on mental health in the profession and shows that intense stress is a risk factor for binge drinking and the regular use of medication among veterinary surgeons in Germany,” he said.

 “But care must be taken in generalising the results to the UK profession as the structure of the profession in Germany is different, with more self-employed vets.”