Although I’m happy for others to read it, this post, nay blog, is aimed largely at my veterinary friends both on and off social media.
I’m on the point of hanging up my stethoscope after 39y, and I’ve been in a reflective mood of late. Much is currently being said and discussed regarding the mental health of vets in practice, worldwide. There is great disquiet about the working environment in practice and how young vets are not adapting well to it.
I have no evidence beyond my 39yrs experience, and my opinions are no more than that. However I do think that some of them are worthy of further investigation or even research. So here goes…
My 39y was split into 2 discrete parts, with the hinge just after the millennium. It’s the contrast between my 2 eras which gives rise to this piece. My first 21 years was spent in mixed practice, largely my own practice in N Wales. We did all our own OOH. There were no alternatives. We grew the number of vets in the practice not out of profit, but out of the need to improve this rota. The Rota was at worst 1 in 2 nights and weekends, at best 1 in 4, but mostly 1 in 3. There was no time off in lieu as there was no manpower to cover it. Working hours were enormous. I never measured but I guess we’d have averaged 70-80 hrs/wk. We were exhausted physically. Sleeping was wonderful! Holidays a luxury. Weekends off all too brief. On the upside, clinical experience came rapidly, but clients were the same as ever, and really had little appreciation or understanding of our lifestyle, despite Herriot’s best efforts. But we did have a warm inner satisfaction of being a small, intrinsic part of something rather wonderful.
Post millennium, I’d had a partnership falling out scenario, and I found myself in purely SA practice in Wirral. It was solo vet pretty much but we had an OOH night and weekend service to support us. I never did another night on call! Weekends were morning consults only. I got a life back. First reaction was one of unbelievable bliss. I felt like I’d awoken in vet’s heaven. Mind you, it wasn’t as good for the patients. As we didn’t do nights, almost all overnight cases were transferred to OOH, and an element of professional satisfaction disappeared. As the practice grew, by growth and acquiring another 3 locations, our vet numbers grew. But this time we weren’t growing numbers to give us a less insane OOH. We were growing to cover surgery daytime hours. Working days were 10 hrs start to finish, and there was usually a break or two of some sort. A 5 day working week was rapidly heading towards 40 hours. Furthermore, the practice rapidly feminised. And with it came the request for part time hours. We swiftly moved to vets who only worked 2,3 or 4 days a week. The rota became a patchwork. Case continuity depended on superb case notes and overall, we delivered.
What a different world it was to the pre millennium era.
Was I still physically exhausted? Absolutely not.
Was I mentally exhausted? I was drained. Why? Well that’s the huge question and is the crux of the matter. I didn’t work every day. But the day before I worked, and especially the evening before, was horrible. My anticipation of what was to come the next day would bear no connection to reality. I’d overthink everything. This seemed to be exacerbated by endless discussions over every detail of work and personal lives. Thinking was and is draining!
At this point I’d like to step outside the vet world. I’ve spent my life working between the goalposts of vet practice life. I saw the world outside purely as an observer. But what I observed, particularly in my kids and other young working people, was that our young vets are not in a unique position. There is nothing particular here to the vet profession. I believe that the workplace post millennium has changed. It has involved less hours. More systems, wretched systems. More zero hour contracts. More jobsworths abusing their tin-god power appetite. More debt. More comminications. And more time to reflect. To worry. To anticipate.
So, in a nutshell the young workers pre millennium were more often physically tired and worn out. And post millennium they have become mentally drained.
Which is better? Personally I think man is more suited to physical tiredness. I don’t think we have evolved enough yet beyond the Hunter gatherer who had to work all hours to keep the dependents fed and watered. Our politics and social conscience may have moved on. Our bodies haven’t. We simply don’t have the evolutionary adaptations yet, across society, to cope with the modern, reduced hours, over systemised workplace. And we are deprived of the solutions. We work less, we get paid less, we owe more. We need to pay off debt and work more. But work isn’t available to fit our over systemised lives. We can’t fit it in! Vets are actually lucky….there is far more work available to us than to most young workers. But does it fit with all the other elements of our complex lives?
What’s the answer? I don’t know. But here’s the suggestions.
1.We need to work longer hours, with less frequent, longer breaks – I’m not talking lunch, tea breaks, days off or weekends! Consequently we will have less random, disorganised negative thought time. We need less days off. More work consistency.
2.We need less social media (!!) because it winds up the negative thought process far more than the positive ones.
3.We need more small business opportunities. The Great Corporate has taken over the world of employment. And many young workers just don’t fit in. So we need real and adequately lucrative alternatives. And we need to keep small business simple. If there is one huge opportunity of the dreaded Brexit, it is to reduce regulation. Please please…
4. Go carefully with Employment law. The human being takes badly to being treated by process, tick box, system. Invoke it and we naturally feel that we are just a number. A commodity. A lump of meat. Nooooo! We are REAL people. Individuals. Talk and listen. Discuss. Have meetings, phone calls, conversations. But cut the formality until you absolutely have to use it. So much can be worked out and around. Once due process starts, the battle is called and lost. Teams need great morale. Due process is a moralecide.
5. We need sabbaticals! Rather than constructing life around weekends and holidays, take fewer, extended breaks. Leave and start over if necessary. And be constructive. When you work hard, you really shouldn’t be able to dwell on what to do next in life. Instead aim to earn enough to give yourself a real break. Several months. A year maybe. Time enough to totally log off ….and to log on again later under a new entity. Nothing lasts for ever in any life, but in the 21st C the lifespan of a job, a business, a role is shorter than ever before. I believe there is no choice but to adapt fast to this one. I know other things in life get in the way. Kids! But sort it. Do something great with your kids while you can. Then do something different in life.
6. Money. That which makes the world go around. Or not. An estate agent told me recently that homes for first time buyers must have a new kitchen and bathroom. The young won’t fix up anything. They want it all done and will borrow more to pay for it. BORROW MORE?? So much debt. Debt really, really causes worry. And rightly so. Did the banking crisis do nothing? Did we not learn that debt has to be affordable? Student loans worry me. They are clouded in the mysteries of taxation and ultimately don’t have to be repaid for those on low earnings. What a way to live. If you earn enough you have an extra significant tier of tax. If you don’t earn that much your debt/loan spirals with interest. Then one day it will disappear! No wonder there is a generation struggling to handle money!
We can’t escape that real debt has to be affordable. It should be minimised and leveraged for maximum benefit. If it can be avoided…avoid it. If you can stay at home for Uni….do so! It will save a fortune in REAL money. We have a stark contrast nowadays of students with debt and hard working apprentices without. I’d wager that the apprentices sleep better! My gross generalisation is that I think they are a happier lot, both during and after training. Go prove it somebody please! They work long hours, learn from a real person, hands on, and learn to pay their way from a young age. Man is adapted to suit.
7. Unique individual or just a number? As the Great Corporate grows incessantly – I speak globally here rather than just veterinary – profitable business opportunities are gobbled up and the world of small business gets ever more competitive and difficult.
So do we stay within the Great Corporate? Well how is the stress of being just a number? Are you happy there?
Or do we look beyond for that small niche which creates an opportunity?
Whilst it is undoubtedly getting ever more difficult to do so, paradoxically we all share the very same USP opportunity We are all unique – and don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t! Joe Public loves a service consistently provided by the same person, day in, day out. Provide something needed, do it yourself, be yourself, build your client bonds, make everybody feel special, and you too can build a small and successful business. Do you want to go large, Sir? Avoid!! Small is beautiful and you are too.
So there’s my proposition 1-7. We are better adapted to full time work for a season, than to part time work for ever. And after a season, we need a sabbatical so we can migrate to better feeding grounds.