A survey carried out by VetSurgeon.org and VetNurse.co.uk has shed new light on the incidence and impact of bullying and unpleasant behaviour in veterinary practice.

The survey was promoted to the profession via the websites, by Veterinary Times and through the RCVS Mind Matters newsletter. The data was then anonymised, analysed and reported on by Sally Everitt MRCVS, ex Head of Scientific Policy at BSAVA.

677 participants reported being on the receiving end - within the last year - of at least one of 15 types of unpleasant behaviour which ranged from being physically intimidated through to being on the receiving end of sly glances. However, on average, each respondent experienced no less than five different types of unpleasant behaviour.

Of these, 390 were veterinary nurses, 252 were veterinary surgeons and 13 were practice managers.

The most frequently reported behaviours were: 'being belittled in front of other staff' (73%), 'being criticised minutely, repeatedly and seemingly unfairly' (65%), 'being aware of management or senior staff talking negatively about you behind your back' (51%), and '‘having your authority undermined to others in the practice, for example by having your instructions countermanded commonly and without consultation' (50%).

Seen in isolation, some might question whether these sorts of behaviour amount to bullying. It is important therefore to stress both that they typically formed part of a pattern of behaviour (the five different behaviour types reported, on average, by each respondent), and that the survey specifically asked only for reports where the behaviour was repeated.

Separately, 344 people also said they were currently on the receiving end of sustained patterns of behaviour, usually from one person, which seemed designed to make their life unpleasant.

Respondents were also invited to describe in more detail how they felt they had been mistreated at their practice.

Sally said: "Reading the responses, four main themes stood out: not feeling part of the team, lack of respect, lack of support and issues around management including not being listened to and perceptions of being treated unfairly."

Participants in the survey were then asked to describe what impact the behaviour had on their working life.

Sally said: "The answers to this question often demonstrated that the respondents had been very upset by the behaviours. Of the 560 replies to this question, 220 described an impact on their mental health, from anxiety to breakdowns and suicidal thoughts. 120 respondents talked specifically about the impact on their lack or loss of confidence, and 207 talked about leaving their job or the profession entirely."

Survey participants were then asked what they planned to do about it. Out of 680 replies, 195 talked about moving practice as soon as they can, 164 said they would take it up with the practice manager (however, of the 55 who reported this in the free text answer, 30 said it led to no change or made things worse), and 109 said they had no choice but to suffer in silence. 45 said they had or would leave the profession and only 35 said they would take it up with the perpetrator themselves.

As regards who is bullying who, more or less the same number of people reported being bullied by a veterinary surgeon as a veterinary nurse. What was interesting, and important for those in positions of leadership to note, is that veterinary nurses were much more likely to be bullied by other nurses and vets by other vets. 

Finally, respondents were asked a series of questions about whether there was a zero tolerance of bullying or conflict resolution policy in force and enforced at their practice. Only 24 and 28% of respondents respectively were aware of such policies being in place. What was also clear was that having such policies and enforcing them correlated with lower levels of being on the receiving end of sustained patterns of unpleasant behaviour at the practice.

Arlo Guthrie, Editor of VetSurgeon.org and VetNurse.co.uk said: “Above all else, I want to thank everyone who shared their experience so that others can draw comfort in knowing they are by no means alone in this. I also want you to know that you’ve been heard. 

"Given the survey design, it is not possible to draw any conclusions concerning the prevalence of bullying in the veterinary profession. What we can say for sure is that there have been 680 reports. If, as the data indicates, these are from different practices, then it is something that goes on in a significant proportion of veterinary practices."

"The million dollar question is what needs to be done next. It seems to me that the first and most important thing is that the profession needs to talk about behaviour and its impact openly and candidly, mirroring the great strides forward in the area of mental health."

In addition, the survey report proposes further discussion - at both a practice and professional organisation level - about things which:

  • Encourage greater reflection/awareness by all members of the team about the impact that their behaviour may be having on others
  • Reduce the likelihood of unpleasant behaviour occurring in the first place, such as ‘zero-tolerance of bullying’ or conflict resolution policies, which, as noted earlier in this report, correlate with reduced reports of sustained unpleasant behaviour.
  • Encourage awareness by all members of the team that, when someone else’s behaviour falls short, there may be other stresses in that person’s life that have caused it
  • Recognise that we work in a stressful environment and provide practical support for individuals when things aren’t going well, such as buddy systems.

As one veterinary nurse commented: "Pay is obviously important when you have a mortgage and bills, but not dreading going into work every day, it’s priceless!"

To download the report in full, click 'Behaviour in Practice' link in VetSurgeon Jobs  (on the RHS under Job Resources; view in landscape on mobile phone). 


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