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Time to set a standard of care for our colleagues

by
01 June 2017, at 1:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

HABIT IS SUCH A DEBILITATING THING! It’s not necessarily a negative concept but, rather, it’s so limiting in our approach to the boundless choice around us. Habitually, I’m an early riser and the dogs have got used to being out of the house by six o’clock which, in itself, limits any rare opportunity for a lie-in. This morning we found ourselves, as we so often do, wandering across the fields of the Batsford estate with Meon Hill and its distinctive flat top on one side and Broadway Tower cresting the top of Fish Hill on the other horizon. The tower was the brainchild of Capability Brown and was built for the 6th Earl of Coventry in 1798, but is little more than a folly although it now houses exhibitions of local history on three of its floors. What many might not know is that, in an adjoining field, lies a nuclear bunker. A relic from the Cold War, it was built as part of a wider network of similar structures across the country to enable the government of the day to study the effect of nuclear explosions and radioactive fallout. On a bright, spring morning there seems such a disconnect between the benign beauty of central England and the harsh reality of what might have been had – in the words of the Tower’s guidebook – the Cold War turned hot, but as we are living in turbulent times, stark reality is never far from sight. An early morning walk is a great time to hold a meaningful conversation with oneself and I was musing that this profession has been kind to me over the last 30 years, providing me with a living and a real focus for my everyday endeavours, something of a privilege in every respect. Yet this same profession has seen dismay and distress on a scale greater than most, with well-being rather belatedly appearing as a focal point for wider discussion. Recent research has shown that well-being for veterinary staff still features far too low down the list of priorities for many practices. Perhaps we should say “most” practices as in the survey of 194 veterinary professionals, two-thirds of respondents said their practice had no one appointed nor any programme in place to take responsibility for wellbeing. The most cheering part of that survey’s report is that one-third of practices had made some provision for this and two-thirds of those who did not have it commented that they hoped to implement something in the future. Clearly, awareness of the problem has grown and a wider application of attention to this problem has begun. More than 98% of those respondents recognised that wellbeing contributed to business success and that rings an alarm bell in my addled consciousness. Some might say it doesn’t matter why or how the profession addresses its problems, but business success has to be properly resourced and, if making a difference is achievable, it would be immoral to see a lack of resources being held responsible for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in just one, let alone any number of veterinary health professionals. Have we fallen into the habit of seeing our management of practice as being a set piece that doesn’t need changing or are we just too fatigued by the never-ending tide of changes that consumers have required of us?

Dramatic changes

These last 30 years have seen such dramatic changes: in our approach to caring for different species; the rise of consumer power; the potentially toxic marriage of “price and convenience”; the need to be open all hours and to employ a set of skills and values that are not necessarily our own and may be far from those for which we were trained. We seemingly accept a poor worklife balance, long working hours and a target-based working environment, but the old mantra that older vets may once have trotted out – “we had to do the same in our day” – is simply no longer true. Our forebears within the profession may have lived above the shop and been on duty for more hours than the speaking clock, but the current climate of targets and financial pressures are an invention of the modern age. As humans, we seem hard-wired to resist change and to attribute blame to those who drive that change, but in reality, corporate practice is usually financially secure with sufficient reserves to weather the storms of an economic rollercoaster and with a structure that fosters young graduates. Larger companies are often more regulated and, where shareholders are involved, the need to do things by the book is paramount. Who cares if employment conditions are formulaic if they offer protective structure to employees? When corporate practice first arrived, a sizeable part of the profession looked askance at it, fearful that it would make irrevocable changes to a carefully crafted image of practice that reflected what some saw as having been a golden age. In reality, corporate practice may yet turn out to have been the saviour of the profession. It provides an exit route for many in a climate where younger vets could not, or would not, sign up to a partnership, it provides structured terms and conditions for employment, for CPD, for career advancement inside and outside the clinical framework and, in many cases, has set out a modern vision for local practices that myriad clients like and support. This must surely be the time for this profession to pull together, to speak with one voice, to stop worrying about the difference between independent and corporate practice and to agree a minimal standard of care and attention to the needs of our own. We have seen the introduction of invaluable – and hugely appreciated – organisations like Vetlife and Mind Matters, but we need to go further. To quote the inspirational Gudrun Ravetz, BVA president, “It’s essential we all play our part in making veterinary workplaces supportive and nurturing places for colleagues, clients and patients.” This profession can take pride in how well it continues to do that for clients and patients in an increasingly competitive and demanding marketplace, but isn’t it time we set out a minimal standard for meeting that same need for our colleagues too?