Why a veterinary union is needed - Veterinary Practice
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Why a veterinary union is needed

​In his column in the January issue, Mike Nelson writes that it is over 20 years ago since a paper describing high suicide rates amongst vets appeared in The Lancet. Mr Nelson appears to conclude from this that we should simply accept it as a fact that our profession is, and always has been, disproportionally represented in terms of mental health problems.

In his column in the January issue, Mike Nelson writes that it is over 20 years ago since a paper describing high suicide rates amongst vets appeared in The Lancet. Mr Nelson appears to conclude from this that we should simply accept it as a fact that our profession is, and always has been, disproportionally represented in terms of mental health problems.

I would argue that the statistics in The Lancet presented back then underline my point that the veterinary workplace still does not seem to be a healthy environment to be in and that change is very urgently needed.

If “our profession is a cross section of society” and we therefore “should expect increased demoralization”, how come, in the 21st century, the suicide rate within the profession is four times that of the other part of “society”?

When people work in a particular environment for a long time, they begin to lose sight of any flaws within that environment. They may also become convinced that the way things have always been done is the only way, which stalls the process of change and improvement. However, continuing change is necessary for progress.

As significant change is less likely to emerge from inside, today’s forward-looking large companies and organisations are regularly seen to recruit executives from different backgrounds, often with no or little experience of the concerned area, to induce what they call “fresh blood” into their organisations.

On the above lines, some would perhaps argue that a vet approaching retirement age or already retired may not be in a position to appreciate the problems of younger generations of vets and hence not best qualified to comment on the need for change. Mr Nelson clearly does not seem to think that I am qualified to do so either.

However, I feel that it might just be possible that people with wider experience in different environments, who come in fresh, and listen to other people, may easily pick up the flaws in the system and recommend a change. Eventually, it is beneficial to concentrate more on listening to a speaker rather than looking at him. I realise not all of my observations are highly palatable but I feel it is important that somebody speaks out. Whether I am a member of any organisations I may criticise in the process is neither here nor there. By Mr Nelson’s logic it would not be fair for Conservatives to criticise a Labour Government because they did not vote for it!

If we openly compare our working conditions and terms of employment with any other professionals or any other employed workers in the UK for that matter, we have to come to the conclusion that we are significantly worse off. These matters cannot simply be brushed aside by stating how appalling working conditions used to be 30 years ago.

Is this what we want?

“If you grin and bear it, stress and all, you can be appreciated,” Mr Nelson writes. Is this really how we would like to think about our working lives in the 21st century? Do we have to work 70 hours a week because it has always been that way? And what if most of us do not want to?

Where can we turn to when confronted with an employer who, like Mr Nelson advocates, tells us they will rather write us a reference after we have had to ask for a pay rise ourselves? How long do we have to continue writing anonymous letters to veterinary periodicals?

At least until the next paper on the state of the profession is published in The Lancet perhaps.

In order to bring about a change, we can be quite powerless as individuals. But together we can make a difference. We need a voice to represent us all, which we don’t have – as yet.

In contrast to Mr Nelson’s suggestions, a union does not have to necessarily deal with individual practices to be effective. A union can do powerful work by flagging up issues, campaigning for change, educating the employees and employers regarding their rights and responsibilities.

The mandate of the proposed union is envisaged to be much wider than Mr Nelson might contemplate. It will look after the welfare of vets as personnel and as professionals, regardless of their employment status. It is expected that a detailed article entitled “Why we need a union for vets” will appear in another veterinary publication shortly. This article will elaborate on the objectives and functioning of the proposed union and, hopefully, alleviate any doubts and fears in this regard.

“Would a new organisation attract more members or do a better job?” [than BVA], the editorial comment alongside Nelson’s column asks? I guess this depends on how you define the job. Currently, the BVA’s mandate is as vague as its functioning and certainly does not include anything to ensure or encourage veterinary practices to improve the working conditions for vets and uphold rules of employment law, for example.

Incapable of changing

Due to its constitutional limitations, compounded by potential conflict of interest at the level of councillors, BVA is inherently incapable of radically changing its function with regards to the protection of employers. Therefore, it is an unrealistic demand on BVA to act as the “profession’s union”. “God help us if the recession is as bad as it is forecast,” Mr Nelson writes. God, however, is known to help those who help themselves. Vets urgently need to unite in order to bring about a change long overdue in the British veterinary profession, change being the source of life.

Body Needed ‘to guard our rights’

Mike Nelson’s column last month, headed “Who wants a veterinary union?”, prompted more readers than usual to respond, nearly all of them calling for a new organisation to be established. Several scolded Mr Nelson for his references to Dr Mir’s background and VP for publishing them. Among other comments were a number from veterinary surgeons who outlined bad experiences and wished to preserve their anonymity.

One vet, in her 40s, said she loved her job but remained an assistant with no prospect of partnership or practice ownership. “Life is hard,” she wrote, “and the rewards are few. It is my experience that I work longer hours than most of my employers (contrary to at least one published letter I have read) and I sadly believe that much of the profession is governed by people who have one large income or no family commitments, and do not understand the reality of my life.

“In the past 10 years I have been sacked twice for things I haven’t done. After the first dismissal I discovered that I was the fourth female vet to have been summarily dismissed from the practice in only a few years. It was, I believe, the inaction of my predecessors that allowed my subsequent dismissal. So I have decided to always fight my corner, partly to protect other employees from the same fate.

“I joined a union as a last resort, but when I recently had cause to ask for their advice I was told that as they were so busy and that I wasn’t a member of a large organisation I was not considered a priority, and nobody ever bothered to ring me back. So I have decided to cancel that membership. It does make it all the more important to have a professional body set up to guard our rights.

“I went to a local CPD event in the summer and met a vet with five years’ experience. Of the six friends that she qualified with, four had already left the profession and the fifth was considering her options.

“I don’t suppose vets are the only people who suffer with poor employment rights and political apathy. I doubt, however, that there are many other professions who work as hard as we do and put up with such a poor quality of life.”

Mike Nelson responds…

From time immemorial investigative journalists have risked misinterpretation of their articles by those who find non-existent motives as they read between the lines. I recall the late Alasdair Steele-Bodger starting a letter, “I do not always agree with what you think, or perhaps I should say with what you write….” There are times when what I write is not what I think but tries to stimulate thought and debate.

My column in the January issue was intended to consolidate much of that which had been published since Dr Mir first put his ideas forward. Being limited to a column of less than 1,000 words it is necessarily a collection of sound bites.

Dr Mir wrote in his first letter that he thought the root cause of the high rate of suicide “is the poor employment and working conditions of vets”. The fact is that the medical and dental professions also have higher suicide rates than other sections of society; 20 years ago it was suggested one cause was the means were readily available “off the shelf ”.

Over those 20 years the numbers have increased in all sections of the community. Hence the reference to the cross section of society.

Dr Mir’s right to express his views is not questioned – and neither should mine be! It is important that any political debate be freely entered into and even if I do not agree with another’s opinion, I would defend their right to express it. What is vital is that this subject be debated without rancour.

Withdrawal of labour

Traditional trade unions exercise their attempts to change salaries and conditions of work based, at least in part, on possible withdrawal of labour, hence my doubts that a veterinary union would have much effect in small practices; corporate practice is a different matter!

I did not advocate employers should offer to write a reference when asked for a pay rise. The logical conclusion is that those unhappy with their lot should vote with their feet to find a better job if they can. I sympathise with those who have had to write anonymous letters.

I do not insult those with whom I disagree. In view of the current controversy over Prince Charles and Prince Harry’s alleged racism, I seem to be in good company. Suggesting a throwaway remark is racist shows a lack of sense of humour.

My readers have observed my non-PC wit over the past 30-odd years of journalism. Even so, since I frequently eat curries, I fail to see why that should mean one should not be taken seriously as a vet, or anything else for that matter, and see no reason to apologise to anyone for such a non sequitur.

One correspondent asks if the VBF truly sort out young vets’ root problems. They are very much in the bailiwick of the BVA’s Young Vet Network and the BVA Mentoring Initiative.

I understand young graduates are taking up both services well in the regions outside London, where there seems to be less interest but perhaps salaries and conditions are better there.

BVA Council decides policy based either on the councillors’ opinions or on the mandate given to those councillors by their BVA Divisions. If veterinary surgeons are unhappy with BVA policy they should attend BVA divisional meetings and make their views known before they complain. That is what democracy is all about. In any event, I hope my doubts that a veterinary union will make much difference are misplaced.

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