The global COVID-19 outbreak is having a profound impact, including on people in the veterinary industry. Public health and government advice for some to self-isolate and for all of us to increase social distancing poses huge challenges for our industry and its people, as well as the clients we support and the patients we care for.
These challenges include how we manage risk to our own health and how we balance this with providing care to the animals and people we look after. There are concerns about how to maintain a continuity of service amidst restrictions and how to keep businesses running in a time of economic uncertainty and challenge. In the short term there will be profound adjustments to the ways in which we currently can work, study and interact with the people we love.
Looking after yourself and others
With this uncertainty, restriction and change, we see challenges for our mental health.
Worry and uncertainty
The World Health Organisation’s advice for maintaining mental health during the pandemic recommends minimising watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed. The WHO recommendation is to seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice and from a trusted source. This is because constant information about a situation where your control is limited can cause worries to increase, as can rumours and misinformation.
Social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine are important measures for disease control but can have profound impacts for our social contact and connectedness. Being socially connected to other people is key for mental health. Try to maintain and structure in regular contact by phone, video call, social media, and other ways that are possible within the restrictions you face. Sometimes when isolated from others we can experience changes in mood and feel more withdrawn and have less desire to be in touch with other people. If you feel this way reach out to others, even though it feels difficult.
At times of uncertainty and changes to our lives whether that is due to self-isolation or profound changes in our work environment it can be hard to keep structure and routine, both of which can be helpful for mental health. Over recent weeks many veterinary practices and working environments have rapidly changed their working practices and many of us are now spending more time working alone. Keeping to normal timings, routine, and maximising opportunities for contact by phone or online can help things to feel normal in uncertain times.
As a caring industry facing new pressures, it can be our first instinct to care for others and neglect our own health. But rest, sleep, nutrition and hydration are more important than ever. Sleep and rest are vital for mental health. Many vets are facing some of the busiest working periods in their year just now, and sleep may already be compromised, so take steps to prioritise rest days and breaks where you can. There is some excellent advice for professionals about sleep here.
Focusing on what you can control
For individuals: identify aspects of your life and work which you can control and maintain these. Having a sense of control – even over small things – when facing adversity is important.
For employers: communicating a sense of control matters too. Emphasise a sense of safety in your team, they are doing an important job well. Plan, reassure, and communicate. Offer extra support to managers and leaders who are making the plans and holding organisational pressures. Keep management visible and available if you can, and communicate with regular bulletins. Keep bulletins prompt and consistent – a daily bulletin may be better than constant drip feed through the day. Where you can, wait for certainty and decisions before communicating information and make sure people know who they can go to with queries. Promote peer support and a culture of it being OK to say that you are not OK. Plan small debriefs through the day if staff are working more remotely than usual.
Health conditions and neurodiversity
For many people with mental health problems this is an incredibly difficult time. The strategies people have for recovery and staying well may have become more difficult, and for people with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or health anxiety, the behavioural changes being required of everyone may feel in contrast to mental health advice previously received. Veterinary professionals with eating disorders, depression, and other conditions may also be particularly struggling due to restrictions being placed on all of us. If you are struggling just now please know that you are not alone. We want to help and support you, and the professional help available from Vetlife Health Support is available to you. Both Vetlife Health Support and Vetlife Helpline are still running full services and will continue to do so.
Many veterinary professionals have health conditions that increase their vulnerability to coronavirus infection and have been advised to take measures that mean it may be difficult for them to continue to work in the way they usually do. People facing this may be frustrated, isolated, and still wanting to be part of their team. We are seeing the profession’s amazing ability to be flexible and adapt to adversity in the ways practices are supporting people who face this to keep contributing where they are able to. It’s important that the emotional support and human connections remain too, and new ways of working via phone and video are supporting people to do this.
We also know however that some people with serious health problems are unable to work where that flexibility in their role does not exist or where they are not well enough. This is causing uncertainty and worry for some people. If this is you and you are facing imminent financial hardship, if you are a veterinary surgeon who is, or has been, on the RCVS register and you are experiencing financial difficulty, Vetlife Financial Support may be able to help. In addition, we can help family members who depend on such veterinary surgeons financially. Vetlife Financial Support provides grants to assist with primary living costs, such as food, shelter, utilities and basic transportation. Every individual’s circumstances are different so please get in touch with us to discuss your situation in confidence. You must be resident in the UK to apply. For more details or to make an application please visit the Vetlife website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on 020 7908 6374.
Autistic people in our industry may also be finding the restrictions, changes and uncertainty difficult. Usual foods and routines may be unavailable currently. Employers need to give consideration as people take time to adapt.
The coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented challenge for our industry and we know many practice owners have worries about how they will keep running for their staff and the people and animals we help. We know too that many contractors, locums, and people who are self employed may be facing immediate financial difficulty, and staff who are unwell or self-isolating may also be concerned about their income. It’s important to talk about concerns and worries like this and not keep them to yourself, although in our industry we are independent and often prefer to cope alone, we are strongest when we are together and supported.
Generosity, care, consideration, and being part of a community, even if its connections are sustained remotely, is good for the health of the giver as well as the receiver.
Veterinary professionals often have a large amount of what is called social capital – being part of a community and part of something bigger than themselves. Thinking of ways you can continue to care for others if your working circumstances have changed can help to maintain a sense of contribution and meaning. Already we are seeing individuals and practices being part of an amazing response to offer remote or practical help to others, and making use of their social capital to maintain their ability to support and help their community.
Feelings of frustration and wanting to help more
Some veterinary professionals are closely involved in this outbreak at the frontline of research, vaccine development, and other areas. Some veterinary clinical professionals and equipment manufacturers are coordinating how to make veterinary equipment and supplies available to the NHS where it could help people. As a group of professionals we are often strongly motivated to help at times like this and some veterinary professionals in clinical roles, who are more distant from work to combat the outbreak, may feel frustrated that they have aligned knowledge but feel limited in what they can do in a human health crisis. It’s important if you are feeling this way to reflect on the role that you do have and the ways you can support society and the people around you. Maintaining the sense of day to day meaning in the work we do may feel challenging at times through this, but it is vital. We know that as well as those contributions to frontline efforts to combat the outbreak, that maintaining food production, supporting the lives of people who rely on their animals, and all of the benefits from the human animal bond are vital at times of trouble. Animals are bringing people joy and comfort and reasons to keep going in difficulty, and we all have a role and can help.
We know for many students this is a time of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption. Students who rely on work in the service industry to fund their studies may be facing acute financial hardship. We see you and we care about you. Please talk with us about your worries and concerns. You are hugely valued by our professions and we are looking forward to the incredible contribution you will make in our industry after we get through this disruption.
Many in the veterinary industry will have faced disease outbreaks before, and may remember the difficulties they faced, and be experiencing memories of these. You aren’t alone, we remember too and are here for you. We have learnt from previous outbreaks our own industry has faced that we are a strong and resilient profession who adapt in times of difficulty, but that we are strongest when we are working together and supporting each other.
We know that over the coming weeks we may have to face difficult clinical and personal decisions that could cause moral distress – the feelings from knowing what we want to do from our training, ethics, and values, but being unable to do that because of external constraints. These can be difficult, both immediately and later on. Keep talking about difficulties like these so we can support each other.
Vetlife Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for confidential support. We work using very confidential methods of remote working so we will remain open despite disruption. Our profession has supported each other through difficult and uncertain times before and we will be here for each other, and for the society and animals we care for through this.
To contact Vetlife Helpline call 0303 040 2551 or email.
Author: Dr Rosie Allister Vetlife Helpline Manager