Sunday, 29 May 2011

Oh, I say!

Hm...the titles for my blogs seem to be getting camper every time. It's not deliberate, I promise you, it's just by terrible pun-ey way of telling you that I'm cheating with this one. It's not a blog post it's an essay I'm writing for my certificate (in medicine, of course. Kerry's the grunt with the scalpel, so she's doing surgery). (Oh, essay - geddit? No, I'm not proud of it either but let's stick with it (which sounds like something God said on the 7th day))

Don't worry it's not full of boring medical detail! Instead, it's full of tedious introspection and whining. Doesn't that sound more fun?

Anyway, for those of you still reading, part of my certificate is writing ten 'reflective' (i.e. personal rather than academic) essays of various parts of veterinary life. Initially horrified by the titles (of which the one waiting for you below is a classic), I finally realised a few essays in I was actually enjoying myself. Moreover, these essays seem to dropping the pressure on whatever release valve builds up in my brain and causes me to splurge blogs onto the interweb, which might explain why I haven't written a blog for yonks. (Now that's a word I haven't used for a long time...I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere but I can't quite make it work and I want a pee so I'll have to leave it).

So, I've decided to cheat. Below is my first attempt at essay number 7 for my certificate. I probably won't actually submit it in this state, but as it is it feels -almost- suitable for the blog, so it's all your getting instead of a proper post. Nyah. (Except, of course, for this pre-amble, and I think we can all happily live without any more of it).


A key feature of a profession is “altruism” but much of the modern rhetoric around work relates to “balance”. Discuss the tension which exists between these concepts and how you have learnt to resolve it in your own life

An article on the BBC News Website from Wednesday 5th October 2005 reported a statistic that is already relatively well known in veterinary circles (see Bartram & Boniwell 2007 amongst others) – the suicide rate amongst veterinary surgeons in the UK is nearly four times the national average, and double that of other professions such as doctors and dentists. (Sustained well-being) suggests that such figures are only the tip of the iceberg and that for every suicide, there have been twenty attempted.
The BBC article quotes Professor Richard Halliwell of the BVA, who describes being a vet as ‘extremely stressful’. The research done by Professor Halliwell suggested a number of possible reasons for this worrying statistic, including the ready access of lethal injections for working vets, and the ‘culture of death’ the profession engenders by dint of vets’ use of euthanasia as an ultimate way to end suffering in animals. More relevant to this essay, though, are the contributions to stress from the long working hours of many vets, and difficulties in finding a balance between this and a ‘normal’ social life.
The work-life balance is a frequently discussed topic amongst employees and academics who study the psychology of work, and many articles (such as UNISON) discuss the disappointment felt by new employees who have high expectations of options to improve this balance, but find that their employers are either less enthusiastic than them or are simply unable to provide the flexibility their staff are hoping for.
The veterinary profession is particularly prone to pressures upon the work-life balance. As vets, we are seen (and often feel ourselves) to be part of a caring profession, so are driven to work longer and harder – unlike, say, a mechanic, our patients are capable of experiencing great suffering, and such suffering does not end at five o’clock on a Friday evening, which makes regular hours hard to stick to, even for those members of the profession who don’t have out of hours (OOH) duties to perform.
OOH work is also a large part of this tension – although perhaps less common than it was, many vets work a full time job with OOH work on top of it, which not only adds to stress and makes it harder to ‘switch off’ and relax after work, it also cuts down on time for social activities.
I have worked in practice for nearly eleven years now, and, like many others in our profession, found my first few years in practice extremely difficult, in large part because of long working hours, and especially because of OOH work.
In my first job (a mixed small/large veterinary hospital) I found the shock of the sudden change in my lifestyle almost overwhelming. As a student I had a large network of friends and acquaintances, and a very active, healthy social life. As I vet I found myself working sixty-plus hour weeks with frequent OOH duties on top, with almost no time for socialising (and no energy to do so even when I did find the time).
It helped that I remained somewhat connected to my old social scene, because my then-girlfriend was still in her final year at Langford vet school, but the change was still seismic, and something that I genuinely feel took me several years to overcome. As well as such a change in working life, I was attempting to learn a new profession, and deal with successes, failures, and more than anything the responsibility that comes with entering the profession.
Working on call was deeply stressful to me, for a number of reasons – firstly, the loneliness. It suddenly seems to be you (or, at best, you and your nurse) against the world. Secondly, I was called out from home, which meant that I found it harder to relax at home even when I wasn’t on duty – the lines between working and not working became blurred. I find it very difficult to relax, even now, when I’m on call, basically just wanting to sit in a darkened room and wait for the phone to ring.
I found myself taking solace in alcohol and, something which I had never done as a student, drinking when I was alone – it became a ‘reward’ for me when I didn’t have to work a night on call, a way to signify ‘I can relax now, I’m not at work’. My alcohol intake was not excessive (from a medical perspective) but it was much higher than previously and even now I have never lost that feeling of reward than comes from drinking.
My social life dwindled away until it consisted of visiting my girlfriend, and seeing my parents. Things became tenser when my girlfriend graduated, because we were both experiencing similar feelings, but now we lived much further apart.
After a few years, I left my job to be closer to her, and from then on we have always lived together (she is now my wife). This helped quickly and greatly with the balance, but it did not solve everything – we both worked long hours at that time, and both on different rotas, so that at any given moment one or the other of us was usually working, and therefore either absent or bad-tempered and difficult to live with! We realised that things would not improve until we worked less hours.
In the last five years or so, this has been achieved – we both found work in small animal practices (which we both found less stressful, even though it was probably harder work). My wife found a job with no on-call work at all, and I found one with less, but (more importantly to me) a day off per week – this day off gives me valuable ‘me’ time away from work, a time to remind myself that there’s more to my character than just being a vet.
Now, we both work in the same practice, and, having become a senior vet in my current practice, I work even less out of hours than I did before. As far as time goes, my work-life balance is now achieved, and I am much happier.
Just reducing working time by itself was not enough for me, though. I began writing about my experiences in my rare free time in those first years finding it cathartic to talk about how hard I was finding it, how distressing it was for me when cases ended badly or when deeply loved animals died. People began to comment upon my writing, and to my delight this began to develop in two separate ways – firstly as a blog, where I discuss many aspects of veterinary life, and secondly as novels. I was lucky and very pleased to find a publisher for my whimsical nonsense (which has become increasingly detached from veterinary work).
Forging a second (albeit small) career has been very useful in helping me to ‘switch off’ from veterinary work - and if I am stressed or upset about a difficult case or situation a can write about it, giving me an outlet and some measure of distance from it.
Both myself and my wife have taken active interest in old hobbies, ones that we left behind when we went to University. For her, it is riding. Concentrating on and caring for her horses brings her great pleasure and helps her to relax. For me, I have become a ‘geek’ again – reading science fiction, playing games, meeting up with new friends I have met through this hobby at conventions. In short, we have both developed full and active lives outside of work, sometimes with each other, sometimes with our own interests.
This has been quite a personal essay for me. There was a time, shortly after I qualified, that I felt there was nothing to me but a veterinary ‘machine’- diagnosing, treating, caring, killing (and at home, drinking) – but I’m happy to report that seems like a long time ago.
Thanks to the help of my wife, my writing, and my deep-seated nerdiness, I’ve found myself again.