It cannot be denied that the veterinary sector can be a stressful place to work. High-risk situations, long hours, client demands… we could all write a list of the stressors placed on veterinary staff that can contribute to feeling stressed. However, just because we work in a challenging environment does not mean that stress should be normalised or trivialised in the veterinary workplace.
In this two-part miniseries, we will explore the indicators and effects of stress and how it can be best managed to ensure that all staff in practice can thrive.
Indicators and effects
Generally, the early signs of stress are changes in behaviour. These changes can manifest themselves both in individuals and in teams, so it is important to identify signs and take action early on. In individuals, signs of stress may include taking more time off work or regularly arriving for work late, being withdrawn or less engaged with their work, a loss of confidence or heightened emotional reactions (such as being more tearful or more aggressive than usual in response to situations that arise). In teams or groups, signs of stress may include increased staff turnover, increased absence rates, arguments or “bickering” among the team, more staff complaints or grievances, or decreased performance.
Of course, everyone will respond to stress differently. Everyone’s “stress buckets” (Figure 1) are different sizes – some can hold a lot before starting to fill or overflow, and some are smaller. Experiencing the same event will, therefore, impact different people in different ways.
Identifying workplace stressors
Employers have a legal duty to carry out a stress risk assessment and act on their findings. Roles in the veterinary sector can be particularly susceptible to work-related stressors – the Health and Safety Executive identifies six areas which should be managed to minimise stress on team members. These are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change, each of which are discussed in more detail below.
Employers have a legal duty to carry out a stress risk assessment and act on their findings
Are your team members able to cope with the demands of their jobs? This factor looks at whether the job demands are adequate and achievable within the agreed working hours, how well people’s skills and abilities are matched to their job roles, whether rotas are reasonable and how well the organisation addresses employees’ concerns about their working environment.
Do your team members have a say in how they do their work? This factor considers how much of a say people have in how they carry out their roles – for example, can they decide when to take breaks, how the rota works or how to tackle a problem? Control also looks at how much people are encouraged to use their existing skills and initiative and develop new skills to tackle new and challenging work.
Do your team members receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and managers? This factor requires the practice to have suitable policies and procedures in place to support employees, encourage line managers to support their teams and encourage team members to support their colleagues. It also looks at whether people know what support and resources are available and how to access them, as well as the provision of regular and supportive feedback to all team members.
Are team members subjected to unacceptable behaviours at work? This factor looks at practice culture and fairness – whether the practice promotes positive behaviours, how openly information relevant to work is shared and how unacceptable behaviour is flagged, dealt with, resolved and/or prevented.
Do team members understand their role and responsibilities? This factor examines how clear the requirements of work are. Practices should ensure that role requirements are clear, communicated and compatible, with systems in place to ensure team members can raise concerns about any uncertainties or conflicts they have in their role or responsibilities.
Does the practice engage with team members frequently when undergoing organisational change? Change at work can be very unsettling. So, leaders should ensure that everyone is provided with timely information about the reasons for upcoming changes, consult them as required and offer opportunities to influence proposals. The potential impact of change on each person should be explored and training planned if there are going to be any changes to job roles. Relevant support should be provided to all team members during the change.
Causes of conflict
Conflict in the workplace can include a range of behaviours, from personality clashes and incivility to bullying. In any veterinary workplace, there will be a range of people, perspectives and experiences – and this should be a good thing! However, a diversity of approaches to life and work can lead to misunderstandings and disputes between co-workers.
The leader or manager’s role is crucial: extensive research has identified good management as crucial for employee well-being and engagement
Obvious forms of conflict at work include heated arguments, the use of unacceptable language, discriminatory behaviour and bullying or harassment. Less obvious forms can be more subtle and harder to spot for those who are not directly involved, but anyone with line management responsibilities should be alert to colleagues showing certain behaviours. These could be colleagues being discourteous, talking over people in meetings, not valuing others’ views or experiences, or ignoring people or not including them, and also any simmering tensions due to differences in personality or ways of working.
The leader or manager’s role is crucial: extensive research has identified good management as crucial for employee well-being and engagement, and we can all identify examples where this has or has not been the case. As a leader, your own approach to workplace conflict is vital because:
- Your behaviour can be a potential source of stress and disengagement or positive well-being and engagement for your team. For example, being managed by someone who is consistent, fair and kind and builds a good relationship with their team will enhance someone’s sense of well-being and desire to do a good job
- You influence your team’s exposure to sources of workplace stress: you act as the gatekeeper to determine how your team views your organisation. For example, if the culture in your organisation tends to be critical, you can mitigate the effect on your team by taking a positive approach, showing appreciation and avoiding unhelpful criticism
- You have a key role in identifying and tackling people’s issues. For example, you are likely to be responsible for managing absence and return to work, supporting your team in managing health issues and managing conflict between team members
Having identified where the sources of stress and conflict are in our practice, it is time to take steps to tackle them! In the second part of this miniseries, we will look at good practice in managing stress and conflict in the veterinary workplace.