Working to improve the well-being of members of the profession

01 February 2013, at 12:00am

JAYNE LAYCOCK reports on her pick-of-the-month webinar “The Science of Happiness”, led by David Bartram, BVetMed, DipECSRHM, FRCVS, director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund

BEING a vet can be a full and rewarding career, but it can also be tough. The demanding entry requirements for vet school mean that many vets are high achievers, and perfectionism is often sought in a job where perfection is hard to achieve.

We work long and antisocial hours with financial rewards that are unlikely to match our peers within the medical profession. So I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that the suicide rate within the veterinary profession is three to four times that of the general population and twice that of dentists, medics and pharmacists.

Vets also suffer from a higher rate of anxiety and depression, and the profession has a higher proportion of “at-risk drinkers” when compared to the general population.

David Bartram included these facts in his recent webinar on The Webinar Vet on The science of happiness in which he discussed the mental well-being of the veterinary profession and how we can help to ensure that we don’t add to these saddening statistics.

Mr Bartram, who qualified at the RVC in 1988 and spent three years in mixed practice before making his career in the pharmaceutical industry in both human and animal health sectors, is a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund with responsibility for the Veterinary Surgeons’ Health Support Programme.

He was awarded the RCVS Diploma of Fellowship by Thesis and received the degree of Master of Philosophy from the University of Southampton for his research into the mental health and well-being of the UK veterinary profession.

David started by defining “mental well-being” as “feeling good and functioning effectively”. What determines well-being, however, is more complicated and is affected by three criteria: genetics (50%),circumstances (10%) and factors under our voluntary control (40%).

Genetics and circumstances cannot be easily changed but “factors under our voluntary control” is an area we can work on to take positive steps towards a healthier mental state.

Taking action

These voluntary actions fall into a number of categories and David cited the acronym GREAT DREAM to help explain 10 voluntary actions which could make a real difference to our levels of “happiness”.

  • G is for giving. This could be as simple as offering kind words to someone. More often than not the benefits of offering support are greater than those for receiving it.  
  • R is for relating to people. The connection with other people affects our happiness more than any other single factor. Having confiding relationships where negative feelings can be articulated has a very positive effect. It must also be remembered that friendship is all about quality, not quantity. Having numerous friends on Facebook really doesn’t help to achieve happiness if those friendships are meaningless and shallow.
  • E is for exercise. The benefits of exercise are many-fold whatever our age, but exercise taken early on in adult life has a protective effect against severe depression when we are older. Any positive mental benefit reaped from exercise tends to be based on the amount rather than the intensity, and three 20-minute brisk walks a week could make a real difference. Sleep is also extremely important and a good regular six to eight hours of sleep per night is optimal.
  • A is for appreciating the world around you whilst trying to be accepting and non-judgemental of others.
  • T is for “trying out” challenges and engaging in daily tasks which create “flow”. Flow can be translated into performing activities that allow you to fall into a state of mind where everything else, other than the task in front of you, disappears from consciousness. Often this means engaging in activities which test our skills but are within our capacity. It doesn’t include passive forms of activity such as watching television.
  • D is for direction and having a goal to aim at.
  • R is for resilience. Try to remain optimistic even in the face of adversity. Negative thoughts need to be challenged, and pessimistic expectations disputed.
  • E is for emotion. The benefits of emotions such as joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration and pride should never be underestimated. We must always keep a sense of perspective and never be lured into the trap of perfectionism. Reflecting on and savouring the good in our lives can be very powerful. David suggested keeping a gratitude diary where we write down three good things that happen every day, which has been proven to have beneficial effects on well-being.
  • A is for acceptance and being content with who you are and being yourself. You should also give yourself permission to be human and not beat yourself up when mistakes will inevitably be made.
  • M is for meaning and involves engaging in activities that are meaningful to you. These activities could, for example, be related to religious beliefs, or perhaps voluntary and charitable work.

The GREAT DREAM acronym gives an overview of what we can do to protect ourselves from a decline in our well-being. However putting GREAT DREAM to one side for a moment, I had mentioned in the introductory paragraph that poor financial rewards compared to our peers could make our job tough. But is this actually true? Can money make us happy? 

Evidence indicates that money will not bring happiness. No matter how much we earn, we become habituated to our income, our aspirations rise and we fall into the trap of envying people who earn more. 

So I’m afraid for all those people (including myself) who think winning the lottery will solve all our problems, this is simply not the case. Winning the lottery has been shown to increase well-being only in the short term. 

If, against all odds, you do happen to win the lottery, the key to maintaining happiness is to try and spend the money wisely. 

Give some away to those in need, spend it sparingly on yourself and try to buy experiences rather than material goods. 

This webinar has really made me stop and think about trying to maintain a more positive outlook on life. We are lucky to have the Veterinary Benevolent Fund to offer support to vets who are struggling with “life”. 

But it is clear that further research is needed to determine why we, as a profession, suffer such high suicide rates, and thereby help improve the well-being of our future profession. 

In the meantime, I intend to put into practice all I have learnt from this webinar, and in the words of Eric Idle, “Always look on the bright side of life.”