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Unpacking Terms: Occupational Distress

When considering, and talking about, our mental health, having shared language to normalize the conversation and better identify what we are experiencing is invaluable. When we ‘name it to tame it’, there is a shift from stigma and isolation to one that embraces our human condition of having unique genetics, backgrounds, beliefs, and coping strategies when it comes to mental health challenges.

Adopting a more holistic view when examining and discussing our individual and collective well-being can be helpful. The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is a false paradigm. “Life” includes all the parts of ourselves and all of the ways that we show up in the world. Managing expectations around where we are putting our time and energy so that there is a healthier ‘work-life integration’ feels more realistic. One of the (8) realms of the “wellness wheel” is ‘occupational health.’ Like ‘mental health’, clarifying what contributes to health and what may evoke ‘distress’ is supportive for raising our awareness and contributes to the creation of individual and community solutions that support our holistic health.

So, what is meant by “occupational distress?” Bamboo HR defines this as “the negative psychological and physical effects an employee experiences due to the responsibilities, environment, or other pressures of the workplace”. It is also important to note that this affects everyone differently as we all experience different stress tolerances- factors that may impact the intensity of occupational distress include the person as an individual, their company culture, their support system, their role within the company, among many others.

Studies have indicated that within the veterinary world, chronic workplace stress contributes to veterinary professionals physical and psychological ill health. In the global veterinary community, research has also revealed a high prevalence for anxiety, depression, and empathic strain which increases risk of burnout and suicidal ideation for caregivers. The National Library of Medicine have identified the following as main causes of occupational distress within veterinary professionals:

  • Long working hours

  • Job inequity

  • Pressure to perform- high client demands/ expectations

  • Feeling of loss of control

  • Low social support in the workplace

  • Overtime

  • Financial issues

  • Ethical dilemmas regarding treatment options

Stress within the veterinary industry has been a topic of concern for many years. It is only recently that we have had more veterinary-centric research and literature to support these conversations. Additionally, the circumstances of our clearly-evolving profession has brought the topic of sustainable professional well-being to the forefront for all segments and roles within the veterinary profession. Strategies and policy shifts that support our health at the individual, practice, and industry level are being discussed and developed. Along the way, we can utilize what we have learned from all caregiving professions to support our ‘occupational health.”

Below are a few tips on how best to cope with occupational stress:

1. Recognise the signs and causes of your occupational stress- these will be different from individual to individual

2. Learn different coping techniques- again each person decompresses differently so find the method that best suits you and use it to manage your stress this can be anything from taking a few moments to yourself to allowing yourself a few days off to spend with family and friends

3. Draw clear boundaries between your personal and work life:

-Discourage your team from sending work related messages after work hours unless it is an emergency

-Develop a ‘ritual’ that delineates your work life from the rest of your life, e.g. pausing as you leave your workplace or when you turn off your work computer and intentionally do something that denotes that you are moving into your personal life such as appreciating one thing that you are proud of or that went well during your shift.

4. In the practice environment, discuss healthy scheduling and flexible scheduling ideas.,

e.g. schedule your time with additional 15-30 minute buffers between appointments to allow for appointments running over time while still slotting in quick breaks between patients.

5. Reserve time within your week to catch up on non-clinical duties – organizing, goal-setting, planning, professional development, necessary administrative duties.

6. Acknowledge and address any workplace relationship concerns in a timely manner. Importantly, consider identifying shared values and professional purpose to find common ground and involve a practice leaders a mediator if appropriate.

7. You deserve to attend to your human needs. Stop for hydration, ‘bio-breaks’, and nutrition. Give yourself, and your teammates, permission to take these essential breaks so everyone is functionally optimally.

Occupational health and navigating inevitable occupational ‘stress’ is an on-going conversation. One blog post can only go so far in helping us to move in the direction that supports and serves us. Creating understanding, encouraging conversation, and collaborating to find strategies to foster health and mitigate distress is the way forward. We hope to encourage a professional community of informed and compassionate support and mindful attention and action.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic and finding out more about how best to cope with this as an individual or support your team, here are a few articles we found useful on the topic:

Happy reading and let’s build a thriving veterinary community!


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