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We need to talk about lunch!

Robin Hargreaves, BVA past president and director of Stanley Vets, questions why the veterinary profession is so bad at taking breaks.

We need to talk about lunch! Image

There is a problem with time management in many veterinary practices. It’s not the allocation of time for consultations, operations or investigations; it’s the time for rest, reflection and recharging.

Unlike some jobs, veterinary work doesn’t really have a start and to an end and there’s always something useful you could be doing. Veterinary practice for most of us is highly vocational and the result is that we feel a deep sense of responsibility to our patients and clients. It can easily become a priority to keep working when we could and should be taking a break.

This attitude flies in the face of the evidence. We all know that performance and productivity actually increase when people take proper breaks, so why are we so reluctant to rest? And what should we do about it?

Pressure to perform?

We need to look at what sort of thing might create an environment where breaks are overlooked and mealtimes missed. A simple and easy assumption to make is that it’s pressure to perform from unscrupulous bosses, and indeed, there are almost certainly examples of that to be found. But as with everything, the reality is much more complicated than simple exploitation.

I recently found myself in a Twitter exchange on this very subject and two responses seemed to encompass the problem. One contributor was despairing that in their practice there was a complete absence of recognition of the need to rest. The other, a former boss, described the young vets who he couldn’t get to take the breaks he considered sacred for himself. 

In this second scenario, we have to ask why would people willfully neglect their own wellbeing even when the business is quite content to provide breaks? I think this may go right to our core motivations.

The pressure to be correct, to get things right, to never to make a misjudgement and never miss anything often comes from ourselves. And this is in direct conflict with the inherent unpredictability of natural systems and the limits of time and resources, and the variable attitude of clients. Deep down we know we won’t win them all, but we can wrongly apply the responsibility for that entirely on ourselves.

To manage the guilt that comes from imperfect outcomes we don’t stop, we never give up, and we sacrifice ourselves for our patients. Our warped logic is that the world may criticise us for our outcomes or our fees or may challenge our knowledge, but my goodness they will never find fault with our effort.

Setting a bad example

I think mentors and role models have a great responsibility here. Practitioners – with students or prospective students looking on – who sneer at the colleague who takes their full lunch hour or who roll their eyes at someone leaving the clinic for a coffee break instead of doing a bit more paperwork are setting a damaging precedent.

The result is a competitive environment where respect and status come not from outcomes, but from input, effort and diligence for its own sake, regardless of whether it helps the patient or the professional. And this is something we see in clinical practice and in teaching environments.

So, setting the example and creating the right culture has to come from the top, but we all have a responsibility to manage our own time. And as we see with the example from Twitter, it’s not enough for employers to just make the time available. Breaks need to be the norm, be expected and respected, and even be made mandatory if necessary.

Respect everyone’s time

And we have to take a whole team approach. A lesson I’ve personally learned in practice relates to the conflict between some teams that have flexibility and those that have tight schedules. For instance, if the vet can take a break whenever they like, they may choose to operate from 9am to 3pm solid to get their list done and free up their time at the end of the day. But what if the nurse assisting has a clinic at 3.15pm?

There’s a responsibility to have a coordinated approach to taking breaks that respects everyone’s need to recharge.

In every veterinary workplace there will be days when the storm hits and it’s all hands to the pumps, no rest, food on the move, constant intense activity. When the dust settles, they can be the best days when we’re proud of pulling together as a team. But that cannot be the default situation. If it becomes a constant it will destroy all but the strongest and it’s no way to select for a healthy, functional workforce.

Think about yourself to give your best

The good news is that there will be a solution. It might be more staff or better scheduling, but I think very often it will just be someone in charge making sure that it’s allowed, accepted, and encouraged. Making sure that the team are empowered to think about themselves as part of giving their best to their patients.

I have probably been fortunate in the three places I’ve worked as an employee in that breaks were pretty well observed even though the work was often very intense. As an employer I’ve been able to set a good example. I go home for a break in the middle of the day to eat and that’s pretty sacred to me. This creates the culture where no one feels uncomfortable taking their proper breaks.

The way we take breaks is also relevant. Leaving the building can be very important because for some people, a break can just turn into an extended case round or clinical club. That might be okay some of the time but a proper breather away from work entirely if only for 15 minutes can be invaluable. In the last few years a small independent coffee shop has opened just up the street from our surgery and a walk up there and back for a quick coffee has transformed my working day.

We hear daily about burn out, disillusionment, and tragically much worse. We need to talk about lunch because getting this right might save careers, or even lives.

 

The issue of workload and flexibility, including taking breaks, is discussed in the BVA/VDS Training Good workplace webinar. You can watch the recording here.

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