05 May 2021
Veterinarian, Heal Thyself: How (not) to support vets with physical ill-health
10 Nov 2020 | Ruth Cawston
Ruth Cawston, co-founder of British Veterinary Chronic Illness Support (BVCIS), looks at how team leaders can support staff living with chronic health conditions.
A Complex Problem
When I developed a chronic health condition whilst working in practice, I had serious doubts about whether I could continue to do clinical work. Luckily, my employers were supportive and flexible; as a result, I have been able to continue to work, and have recently passed my final exam needed to gain AP status in Small Animal Medicine.
Sadly, my experience is not universal; we know from our Facebook support group that many vets with chronic illness experience significant difficulties in the workplace. If you’re managing a team with staff who have chronic health conditions, this can feel daunting; you may want to be supportive but find it difficult to know where to start. This blog aims to give you a starting framework; there are no universal solutions, but if you’re managing someone with a long-term illness, then these steps should set you on the right track.
Some Straightforward Starting Points
If someone in your team is struggling, don’t wait for it to get to a crisis point before acting. Those of us with chronic illnesses often don’t have the energy to be proactive – we’re having to take things day-by-day. However, if we push ourselves too hard for too long, we’re prone to acute deteriorations (colloquially called “crashes” or “flares”) where our symptoms – whatever they may be – dramatically worsen. Once we get to this point, it can take weeks or months to get back to where we were before.
As a manager, once of the most useful things you can do is initiate an early dialogue with the member of staff, and then keep up a pattern of regular check-ins. You may not be able to prevent every crash, but you’re giving your colleague (and your practice!) the best chance of avoid them.
When confronted with a situation where one of your staff members is ill, you must make sure you are aware of your legal responsibilities. Sounds obvious, but our experience is that there’s a surprising amount of ignorance (either accidental or wilful) around these issues. If you’re not used to managing this kind of situation, you may be nervous about doing the wrong thing; educating yourself is a good way to build confidence.
If you have human resources support available, reach out sooner rather than later. Organisations such as ACAS provide free, easy-to-read guidance; if you’re a SPVS member, they have some great resources, too. We’re also compiling some resources on our website that may be useful in the future.
When a colleague tells you about their health condition, you need to listen to their personal explanation. It’s tempting to try and draw parallels between their illness and those you might have experienced yourself, or in friends and family, or in our animal patients. Whilst it’s great to try and empathise, each person’s experience of an individual illness is different. You mustn’t allow you own experience to override what your colleague is telling you – first and foremost, listen to them.
When discussing changes for colleagues, in addition to your legal requirement to make “reasonable adjustments”, you need to bring to the discussion as much flexibility as you can. This may mean trying ways of working that you’ve never done before. Instinctively many managers will balk at this, but consider: is it worth losing a talented RVN just because they can’t cope with lifting heavy patients? Or a compassionate vet, because they can’t work longer than 8-hour days?
Even if you feel that you’re making substantial changes for their benefit, the question is not have I done something, but, is it enough? If you can’t create an environment where we can thrive, you’re likely to lose us, either through worsening ill-health or because we find a more suitable role elsewhere. Conversely, if you can work with us to find a solution that works for us both, we’re likely to become a loyal employee.
Be The Leader
When accommodating colleagues with ill-health, it’s not just about changes at the management level; it’s about cultivating the right culture throughout the practice. Listen to how your team speaks about ill-health; hearing things like…
“She’s off ill again… is she ever here?”
“His back hurts? Well, my knee aches, you don’t see me complaining about it!”
“Does she realise how much trouble she causes for us when she’s not here?”
… will encourage a culture where staff hide their conditions, restricting their ability to manage their symptoms. This in turn can lead to worsening illness, and more time off, where everyone loses out.
To counter this, you must first reflect on your own language when speaking about these issues. You may find that others will naturally follow your example; if not, a few quiet, private rebukes is often enough.
Other important changes are those that cultivate a general healthy workplace culture, such as eliminating the push-through-and-manage mentality, enforcing lunch breaks and finishing times, and creating a good work-life balance. Ignorance here is no longer an excuse; the BVA good workplace resources have all the guidance you need to create a culture to allow all of your staff – including those with chronic health conditions - to flourish.
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