When you think about veterinary surgeries it most likely conjures up images similar to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Of a friendly and harmonious workplace where everyone has worked so closely together for so long in a predominantly caring roll that the team is more like a family than colleagues. Sadly, for many vet staff, this is most definitely not the case.
A new survey by the British Veterinary Union (BVU) in Unite has revealed a toxic environment with long hours, stress, low morale and bullying.
“Most vets work very long hours and mostly paid overtime is a foreign concept. Because of the nature of the work it is just expected that you will stay as long as it takes to get the job done,” said Suzanna Hudson-Cooke, BVU branch chair.
“A lot of vets will also work a share of weekends and do on call work. If you work somewhere where you’re expected to do 15 minute consultations you can easily end up sacrificing toilet and drink breaks to try not to fall behind,” she added.
Shocking results from the pilot survey of 260 vets and nurses revealed that as many as 51 per cent had directly experienced bullying by a line manager and 39 per cent by a colleague.
As a result of bullying, one in four of those surveyed had resigned and left their workplaces while 27 per cent of the affected participants did not report their concerns to the management for fear of reprisal.
“Lack of training in management is a big issue in the industry. A change in the governing body has meant that anyone can own a vet practice. A lot of them are now owned by corporations but without any corporate structure. They tend to let the practice run as it is and only step in if there’s an issue with profits,” said Suzanna.
“A lot of the bullying is top down. Senior vets bullying more junior ones or vets bullying veterinary nurses. It is a horrible atmosphere to work in but we are sort of expected to just suck it up,” she added.
Gender pay gap
It doesn’t help that there is a big equal pay problem with no real pay structure and most salaries set around hearsay – what vets think colleagues are earning in other practices. Like many industries there is a bit gender pay gap.
“Veterinary work is a feminised profession with maybe as much as 80 per cent of vet and vet nurse roles filled by women. In contrast most of the people at the top in leadership roles are men,” said Suzanna.
“Pay disparity in any workplace causes feelings of resentment amongst employees. Staff who are paid less than a colleague doing the same work can feel undervalued, have low morale and even depression,” she added.
Mental health crisis
There is already a mental health crisis within the industry with a much higher suicide rate compared to the general population.
The pilot survey revealed such shocking responses in the comments section that the BVU have decided to make some changes to the survey and tailor it more around issues raised before rolling it out further.
In the New Year the BVU section of Unite will be launching an anti-bullying campaign to support vet staff and to help practice owners and managers properly address the toxic issues within their workplaces but also put pressure on the governing body to take responsibility.
“We need to see changes now. The governing body must show they’re taking this seriously and that they won’t tolerate bullying. We cannot provide the best service to customers and their pets if we are stressed and unhappy,” said Suzanna.
“We need to change the culture within the workplaces. I believe that worker led changes are most effective. We need to empower people to know their rights, to not tolerate bullying and to stand up for themselves and their colleagues. The best way to do this is to get all veterinary workplaces unionised,” she added.
By Jody Whitehill