Communication at work: How stoic is too stoic?
Raising an issue with your boss can be one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of any profession. Unfortunately, even in a profession where employees are regularly faced with performing life-saving surgery or breaking news of the very worst kind, we are not exempt from this rule. From spending time on veterinary forums, it is easy to see that issues in the workplace create a huge emotional burden for the veterinary community. Some of this, of course, comes from improper management, but in a job built on the ability to communicate our thoughts and ideas, we often forget to communicate our feelings.
Perhaps this is a side effect of life as a vet? We learn to shut down our emotions, at least to a certain extent. Crying in every euthanasia would soon wear down our emotional tolerance, and shouting at every client who deserved it - whilst likely satisfying in the moment - certainly wouldn’t result in long term gainful employment or growing client relationships. Is this suppression of our feelings being reflected in the way we communicate with both our peers and our bosses?
What do we worry about?
To a greater or lesser extent, we have all experienced the feeling of anxiety raised by anticipating an unwanted conversation with someone at work. The issue can be something major, but even small issues can cause pangs of worry, and these often go unaddresed in terms of mental health. Small issues can build up, can worsen over time, or can simply be the stone in your shoe that takes you beyond what you can cope with. The issues that cause stress are highly individual and while some are universal (a slipped ligature in a 50kg Labrador springs to mind) there is no anticipating what might be difficult for different people.
Speaking about our issues
Initiating conversations about these issues, big or small, often rests on shoulders of the employees. The tachycardia, sweaty palms and restless nights associated with anticipation of a presumed difficult conversation are familiar to many. This dread, and perhaps a need to fill the expectations placed on us that we are stoic professionals, mean that many of our anxieties never get further than the anticipation stage. Worries, fears and stresses fall victim to ‘it’s not that important’ syndrome, cousin to ‘I’ll just run those bloods first’, and ‘oh look, two thousand insurance forms to fill out’.
It is not just ‘bad’ bosses that can induce enough anxiety to prevent us ever even raising our concerns. It is understandable to shy away from a tough conversation with a belligerent boss, for fear of reprisal, being ignored, made to feel stupid or myriad other ways aggressive or uncaring management can make employees feel. It can seem less intuitive to think that those same conversations might be difficult with a kind, caring and friendly management team. What it is important to notice is that fear of upsetting or failing a boss you like and respect can be just as powerful a motivator of anxiety.
Whatever the motivation for the anxiety, finding a way to make your voice heard is a powerful first step to controlling the elements that affect happiness in the workplace.
"The issues that cause stress are highly individual and while some are universal, there is no anticipating what might be difficult for different people"
If you asked the vets in practice today what they love most about the profession, the team element of the job would undoubtedly come out near or at the top. The bonds formed in veterinary clinics are unlike any other, forged over excessive caffeine, bodily fluids and a very dark sense of humour. It is in this team that the veterinary world finds its biggest strength. What might seem too difficult to talk about to a boss, might be easer to the head nurse over a lumpectomy. What keeps you up at night might start seeming kind of funny after a work night out with the nurses. A second perspective can be an invaluable asset to understanding how you are feeling and looking at ways to solve it. Of course, many issues run much deeper than that, but knowing you are part of a veterinary family can help with isolating and examining issues in a way that is often difficult alone.
That veterinary family also extends beyond the practice walls. If there is no-one to hear your concerns within the practice there are incredible outlets within the profession for support and advice. This can come from peers, social media (where anonymous help posts are welcomed if you are afraid of naming yourself) and amazing organisations such as Vetlife, which provides emotional, financial and mental help to the profession.
However you may feel, where work related problems are concerned, conventional wisdom wins – a problem shared is often a problem halved.
Speaking up about our issues is something we can struggle with as a profession, from confessing that you are sick with anxiety every time you are on call, down to the fact it drives you mad someone always moves your crocs. It often feels expected that we ‘love’ our jobs so much, we would barely notice that we haven’t been home in 36 hours and that six sips of cold coffee have been the sole sustenance in that time. It can be difficult to admit we need to rant and rage and cry, just like everybody else. Beyond that can be an unescapable feeling of ''imposter syndrome'‘, a knot of terror of being found to be not good enough – in a world of glossy social media that can be a difficult feeling to escape.
It’s true that it can be difficult to bring up these issues with management, but using the fantastic network we have as a profession can be a real support for tackling those conversations. From a cup of tea at the right time, to sympathetic ears and similar stories online, to the fantastic charity support for vets suffering with mental health, we have got so much going for us. So, I urge you, wipe those sweaty palms down your scrub top, take a deep breath, and talk to someone about how you feel.
I promise you, someone else out there feels it too.
- Read Ben Macy's blog: Using effective communication tools in veterinary practice
- Watch Vets TV: The confidence and communication skills to negotiate with your boss...or anyone else