Moving up – the challenges of becoming head nurse

Robyn McCurry

I qualified as a Registered Veterinary Nurse (RVN) in 2017 although there were times during my training when I did not think I would manage to – I struggled to pass written exams and failed my OSCEs [objective structured clinical examinations] first time round. Four years later, I am now the head nurse of a small animal practice, leading a team of 18. This has not been an easy journey at all and there were times when I struggled with imposter syndrome, had been put down by others and when I really considered quitting. I carried on though, and I still have big plans for my career. 

I was not originally going to go into veterinary nursing, but I had a ‘sliding doors’ moment while at a careers fair at school. I was going around all the university stalls and I was told at one stall I would never get into university. Deflated, I wandered over to a rural college stand and chatted with someone who was very encouraging and assured me I wouldn’t have an issue getting onto a course with them. I investigated veterinary nursing – I loved animals, so it seemed perfect. 

I did the level 3 diploma in veterinary nursing and trained in a mixed animal practice. Once I had qualified, I worked there for a year and did an advanced qualification in zoo nursing, as I wanted to explore other areas of nursing. After a year, I moved to a small animal practice closer to home. I became a clinical coach to two students and discovered a passion for teaching. Along with this, I did a certificate in anaesthesia. Being an extremely ambitious and determined individual, I really wanted to move forwards in my career, so I then decided to do the RCVS/NHS leadership award. I felt ready to enter a management role and I wanted to acquire skills that were not specifically in nursing so that I had more transferable knowledge that could lead to new opportunities in the future. When the head nurse role was advertised at my practice, I felt ready to apply. 

I have been head nurse for about four months now and it has been a steep learning curve. The rota, I have discovered, is like doing a puzzle in which none of the pieces wants to fit together! There’s also a lot that goes on behind the scenes which has to be kept confidential so there’s a little distance now between me and people I used to be very friendly with. I think I perhaps went into my new role with a naive mindset thinking I could solve all issues overnight, However, this is all part of the learning experience and I certainly don’t regret taking the step up. 

Managing a team is complex: you have a group of people who have come together because this is the career path they chose, but the interpersonal dynamics of that group need to be cared for because it can so easily fall apart. Seeing staff from a manager’s perspective is, I think, the thing that has surprised me the most in my new role – you notice and learn a lot more about people than you would working on the floor with them. We are individual human beings with emotions and different personalities, and we don’t always agree with each other.

Veterinary nursing is a challenging career path, and a small profession, yet sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. We can be quick to criticise each other and fall into a blame culture. Along with this, mental health is such a big issue in veterinary nursing and in the wider veterinary community. I feel I am now responsible for the welfare of many people and that is a lot of pressure. Veterinary nursing is an emotionally draining job that leads to burnout and compassion fatigue that simply cannot be ignored. In my practice, I have created a wellbeing corner with a lot of resources, including leaflets about different mental health issues and contact information for helplines. I also went on a mental health for managers course which explained how a manager can support employees’ mental health and I make sure I check in with any individuals who are showing signs of not coping.

The biggest lesson I am learning is that it is important to look after yourself. In my role, I have nurses coming to me with problems and I enjoy helping to solve them, but sometimes it can feel like a snow storm in which the snow gets heavier and heavier and builds up more until you’re waist deep in it. It does not mean you have failed if you need to take a step back sometimes and go for a walk, or take a day off and just leave work at work. My anxiety got a little worse when I first started my new role and I am still learning to manage this new type of stress. They say you must put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others, and this saying applies in a management role too. Take care of yourself!

I work hard for my team because I want to make a difference and create a positive and safe psychological work environment, where people want to come into work. I also like learning new skills, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and I have done this in a variety of situations that have arisen. I am starting a business management and economics degree in October to help me learn even more about this exciting and genuinely interesting role and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.  

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