Can I continue my veterinary career after developing a long-term health condition?

Ruth Cawston

It is said that doctors make the worst patients; I would imagine that vets come a close second. Regardless, developing a long-term health condition is a daunting prospect for anyone. There’s the initial fear and uncertainty after the onset of symptoms, which gives way (via a long path of increasingly invasive medical tests and treatments) to a realisation that life may never get ‘back to normal’. Working in a medical profession, we are used to feeling some degree of control over medical matters, but when it comes to our own health, all feelings of security vanish. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in this situation, as I did, then one of the first questions you’re likely to ask yourself is ‘Will I still be able to work as a vet?’

When I developed a chronic health condition three years ago, I seriously questioned whether I would be able to continue working in clinical practice. I now know that I suffer from an autoimmune condition, which causes joint pain, fatigue and gastrointestinal issues. Initially I was signed off work for a while; when I came back (before I had a diagnosis or any form of effective treatment) I was working less than a third of my normal hours, and had barely enough energy left over to eat and sleep. Were it not for my wonderful husband and a supportive practice, this would have spelled the end of my career as a clinical vet. Instead, I have been able to build my way back to working over 80 per cent of my previous hours, and have completed my designated CertAVP in small animal medicine. The process has been tough and I am still not back to where I was, but through all this I have rediscovered my love of clinical practice. 

Experiences with illness like mine are not uncommon, and the outcomes are not always as positive. One in 14 vets report that they live with a disability or health condition that affects their ability to do their job, and there are likely to be far more of us living with ill health who wouldn’t tick the ‘disability’ box. Two years ago, I and another vet called Claire Hodgson set up a Facebook group for veterinary staff living with chronic illness (Veterinary Spoonholders UK). Through this, I have heard hundreds of stories from vets, nurses and support staff. The good news is that many people can and do continue to work successfully in clinical practice. Sadly, however, this is not the case for everyone and we do see people either diversifying out of clinical practice, or leaving the profession altogether, due to ill health. 

Much as we might try, we can’t control how our health might change over time. But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of illness. If you’re facing the uncertainty that comes from living with a chronic health condition, here are some of the things that you can do to give yourself the best chance of continuing to work in our profession. 

1. Know your own value

Standing up for ourselves does not always come naturally. Most of us hate self-promotion; trying to summon the energy to do this while battling fatigue, pain or other symptoms is even more challenging. We can also get lost caring for our patients, or other people around us, and forget to champion ourselves. 

Remember that you are a trained professional. You have at least one formal qualification, and likely some experience, which makes you valuable. Vets are in short supply at the moment, so employers are reluctant to lose experienced staff. Even if your illness is limiting your ability to work, don’t focus on what you can’t do – focus on what you can. That’s the value that you bring to your team.

2. Be aware of your rights

Remember also that you have rights. You have the right to rest breaks; you have the right to request flexible or part-time working; you have the right to ask for reasonable adjustments. Employers are not always as aware of their responsibilities as they should be, so you may have to push here, but stand firm. 

You might reluctant to ask for ‘special treatment’ for fear of causing a rift with the team, but remember that you’re asking for these changes so you can work better. The more effective you are at your job, the more you can contribute to your team – everyone benefits, including your colleagues and your employer! 

3. Make sure you’re in the right place

Where you work can make or break your career as a vet with chronic health issues. So many of the stories of vets who have been driven out of clinical practice come not because their illness is too debilitating, but because their work environment is too inflexible. If you’re finding that you just can’t thrive in your current workplace, you need to consider whether it is clinical work that you can’t cope with, or just working at your current practice. Changing job while dealing with a health condition can be challenging, but if you want to stay in clinical practice, it might make all the difference.

4. Know your options

Those qualifications and experience that I mentioned earlier aren’t just valuable in clinical practice. There are a whole host of jobs out there that use those qualifications and experience in completely different ways – ways that might be more suited to your health condition. For more information, check out the MyVetFuture Career Change section, or visit Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify

5. Find support

Whether you’re just starting out in the world of chronic illness or have been here for a while, it’s OK to feel a little overwhelmed at times. Make sure you’re getting the support you need. Open up to family, friends or colleagues about what you’re going through – suffering in silence is rarely the right choice. Vetlife is available 24/7 by phone (0303 040 2551) or email via the website, and don’t feel your problems are ‘too small’ – Vetlife is there for everything, not just the big stuff. To connect with people who have lived what you’re going through, check out our Facebook group and website. For advice on work issues, check out Citizen’s Advice or ACAS, and don’t forget that BVA membership gets you free legal advice

6. Remember you’re not only a vet

The final and most important thing to remember is that your worth as a human being is not tied to being a vet. Our chosen profession can feel all-consuming at times, but there is a whole world beyond it, and your health and happiness need to come first. If staying in the vet profession isn’t the right choice for you, it’s not some personal failure on your part. If you decide to step away from the profession, this will not lessen your worth as a human being, and you must hold this firmly in mind as you make the difficult decisions that come with chronic illness. 


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