Supporting grads through early years of vet practice

Cat after surgery in vet practice

A recent press article highlighted the concerns – and perhaps fears – recent graduates have about their first forays in out-of-hours (OOH) work. In that article, BVA Junior Vice President Gudrun Ravetz commented that “Graduates need and want support during the initial phase of their careers. There is no reluctance to undertake OOH, but an understandable apprehension when approaching emergency and potentially complicated situations.”

As a former BVA President and director of a veterinary practice, Gudrun’s words ring true for me. Our job as vets is stressful at times and very often busy. So busy practices need to find ways to support new members joining the profession. The statistics tell the story: in BVA’s Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey almost half of vets under the age of 35 reported concerns about their own mental health and wellbeing. Alongside this 7 in 10 recent graduates felt they were not well supported in their first year of Professional Development Phase (PDP).

"7 in 10 recent graduates felt they were not well supported in their first year of PDP"

I have not been immune from these problems in my own practice and, in recent years, I have witnessed a number of recent graduates having varying degrees of difficulty with the transition from undergraduate status to dealing with the early years of work in practice. Even students who have seen practice previously and are familiar with the clientele and work load have struggled to come to terms with the demands and responsibilities faced once qualified.

At Stanley House Vets, we realised if you keep doing the same things you get the same results, so we have had to change.

Easing the pressure of out-of-hours work

As a practice we do our own OOH work. Many recent graduates enjoy this work but it can be stressful – even waiting for the phone to ring can build up levels of anxiety.

We now have formal support for recent graduates on call, with named vets available for back up during any OOH period until withdrawal is mutually agreed. Thereafter, the usual informal back up remains available. All vets now get 24 hours off after any night on call, so no one ever does two consecutive nights. And after discussions with our recent graduates about fatigue, 48 hours off was agreed after a weekend of two out of three nights.

Encouraging reflective discussion

A further innovation in the practice was reflective discussion. We now schedule a 2-hour slot for all recent graduates to meet, facilitated by a director, where recent successes or issues of their choosing are talked through and we identify lessons learned. These meetings take place about every five weeks and are in addition to monthly clinical meetings attended by all clinical staff. Time off and back up cost money but it feels like money well spent when we see the results.

"We need to keep talking about how to handle the stress our profession throws up"

Benefits for your business

Although difficult to directly measure the benefits of investing in additional support for recent graduates, we do feel that these initiatives are appreciated and staff turnover seems to have reduced.

A tangible reward was our success in a regional business awards competition. We entered with some trepidation a competition to identify the employer of the year in Pendle. Colleagues were required to fill out a confidential online questionnaire about their feelings as an employee. It is nerve wracking to expose the business like this. But the risk was worth it. We were judged winners and receiving the award was probably our proudest achievement as a group of directors. The reflective meetings were specifically highlighted in the feedback and it was very gratifying to be described as "more of a family than a work place.”

Fostering a healthy and enthusiastic team

I think the best families foster independence and self-reliance, but with guidance and a reliable and consistent safety net. Hopefully well-supported and confident vets who progress through those difficult early years will in turn become the mentors of the future and we will see real reductions in the serious problems that have and still do afflict our profession.

We all need to do more to make things better, both individual practices and the profession as a whole. BVA’s recent announcement of funding for Young Vet Network meetings across the country and the ongoing initiatives by Mind Matters and VetLife to address mental health and wellbeing issues in the profession are all helping to create more supportive environments for both newly graduated and more experienced vets. Professional awards, like SPVS’s wellbeing awards, will highlight good staff wellbeing and are warmly welcomed.

We need to keep talking about how to handle the stress our profession throws up without forgetting the joy and satisfaction our jobs also bring us. 

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