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How to manage stress in the workplace

At the BSAVA Congress, Lizzie Lockett and Elinor O’Connor provided evidence-based advice on how to deal with stress at work

04 May 2018, at 1:01pm

In January 2018, the RCVS published its guide to enhancing well-being and managing stress in the workplace, which was a collaborative project with Elinor O’Connor of Manchester University’s Alliance Business School. Elinor presented a talk on reducing work stress at the BSAVA Congress alongside the RCVS’ Chief Executive Officer, Lizzie Lockett. 

“In its simplest form, work stress is really about our subjective perception of when the demands we’re faced with are beyond our ability to cope with them,” Elinor explained, noting that an individual’s resilience will vary over time. 

Lizzie added that 42 percent of people have considered resigning from their job because of stress, emphasising that there are issues much deeper than a lack of aromatherapy massages or being given a day off for your birthday. 

Approaches to managing stress 

There are two key mechanisms for tackling work-related stress, Elinor said: “Either we try to target demands in the workplace, or we boost the individual’s resilience.” 

Mindfulness comes out top in terms of individual-based approaches; the practice has a strong evidence base with research consistently highlighting its beneficial effects. Other approaches listed included simple relaxation techniques, healthy eating and exercise. Evidence has also shown that having social support (either inside or outside the workplace) helps people withstand stress at work, delegates were told. 

Elinor further recommended taking advantage of free online resources, such as the questionnaire devised by psychology consultancy Robinson-Cooper. This tool helps users assess their own resilience levels and provides guidance on how to boost it. 

The speakers took the delegates through five key categories of workplace stress, providing easy-to-implement examples for tackling each one from applications to the recent SPVS well-being awards. 

Work demands 

When trying to target stressors, work practices should be changed where possible. However, the reality is that many of these stressors are inevitable features of the work and cannot be eradicated. “You are at times going to be exposed to animal suffering and it’s not something that we can remove,” Elinor said; “in those instances, it is entirely appropriate to focus on building up people’s resilience.” 

Some examples of approaches practices have taken to target work demands included: 

  • Transferring complex complaints to directors to ease pressure on the receptionists 
  • Providing receptionists with extra breaks to allow time away from the phones 
  • Having a bereavement-trained nurse supporting colleagues as well as clients, giving them chance to talk through their feelings about difficult cases 

Workload and work-life balance 

The veterinary profession is highly paced and involves a large workload, long working days and working unsocial hours. “Never underestimate the power of a break,” Elinor said, referring delegates to advice in the well-being guide on how to schedule a large workload. 

Some examples from practices included:

  • Structuring appointment periods with an hour and a half gap to allow time to run over and still have an hour’s lunch break 
  • Ending consulting blocks half an hour before the vet’s scheduled finish time 
  • Discouraging team members from messaging others about work-related matters outside working hours 
  • Having a “reserve” afternoon scheduled fortnightly for vets to catch up on paperwork

Mindfulness comes out top in terms of individual-based approaches

Relationships at work

Work relationships can be a real source of positivity “or, if they go wrong, they can be the thing that you really take home and worry about,” Lizzie said. It has been shown that people who have strong social networks outside work are better able to cope with difficulties at work. 

Lizzie explained that the process of building relationships starts from the moment you hire people. What perception of the business do they get? How do you mentor and support them? She recommended bringing the team together in an environment that also helps with your local PR and corporate-social responsibility. Each staff member could be allowed some volunteering days every year. “This pays dividends – staff will be more committed to the organisation if you show that you value them,” she said. 

It is useful to enable people to build relationships by showing gratitude to each other; perhaps using the notice board or awarding vouchers, Lizzie suggested. 

There also needs to be clarity around policies like bullying and harassment, she said, highlighting the importance of knowing what to do when something goes wrong. 

Some other examples from practice included: 

  • Making sure that when vets are in the office, they can discuss cases, build relationships and work as a team 
  • Breaking for lunch as a team 
  • Taking prompt action to address any problems in work relationships 

Personal and career development

In the 2014 Survey of the Profession, nearly 50 percent of recent graduates said that in their first year, they had not had an appraisal or any form of development meeting. “People very rarely leave an organisation because somebody didn’t buy them a birthday cake, but they might leave if they don’t know where they’re going and they don’t feel like they’re valued,” Lizzie explained. “Give lots of feedback,” she advised, and “make sure that it is timely and specific.” 

Examples of approaches from award entrants included: 

  • Sending new farm vets on “good outcome” visits initially to boost their confidence and build their reputation with farmers
  • Allowing new vets to operate on “non-owned” animals from a local animal rescue centre with an experienced vet to hand, to reduce the pressure
  • Hiring a dedicated cleaning function to show that the veterinary nursing team’s clinical input is valued 

Control at work 

Do people have a say in how and when they do their work? Involving people in the discussion of how the rotas are put together can be really helpful, Lizzie said. “Ask your colleagues how they would like to do things – would they like one joint meeting or would the nurses like to communicate with the bosses in a different way from the rest of the veterinary team? Or would they prefer an anonymous system of suggestions?”

One award entrant created working groups to address issues that arose in the workplace and would approach every team member for input. 

Combining just a few of these simple approaches to improving wellness in the workplace should help to create a happier and more efficient team. Why not try some out and see which work for you?

Senior Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, BSc, PgDip, MSc, is a science writer and editor. She studied zoology, endangered species re-covery and palaeoanthropology in the UK. Jennifer was Senior Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine for almost three years; she left the publication in October 2019 to move abroad and pursue a freelance writing career.

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