It’s not only physical safety that’s important in the workplace, psychological safety and wellness are just as important.
I am (just) old enough to remember the days when cars didn’t have seatbelts. We three kids used to bounce around on the back seat of the Toyota Corolla. Gradually, the evidence mounted around the reduction in injury and death associated with wearing seatbelts and legislation was introduced requiring people to wear them. You may not remember the time before seatbelts, but you may remember the days when we didn’t wear thyroid protectors when taking X-rays or when anaesthetic scavengers were considered an optional extra, or when smoking was allowed in restaurants.
Our knowledge and understanding increase and things that used to be the norm are no longer considered acceptable.
Workplace H & S has also changed
In the world of workplace health and safety, things have also changed. We now have multiple laws that protect workers at work – from the principles of common law to workers’ compensation to safety laws and the Fair Work Act. And so it should be – work should be good for your health and nobody comes to work to get injured.
When it comes to factors that are potentially damaging to our physical health, the large majority of employers recognize their duty of care and have appropriate training, policies, procedures and practices in place to protect their workers.
What about psychological health & safety?
Are you aware though, that employers are also responsible for ensuring the psychological health and safety of their employees?
Does your workplace have appropriate training, policies, procedures and practices to protect workers from psychological injury?
In veterinary workplaces with their recognized psychological risks (high emotional demands for example), this can be scary to contemplate!
‘Use you, abuse you and replace you’ is in the past (thankfully!)
Working in a vet clinic back in the 1990s, I was told that we use you, abuse you and replace you. Nice, I thought. I always give my best work when I feel valued!! That was more than twenty years ago though, things have surely changed. The legislation has been there for quite some time now and these things should no longer be happening. Right? So, why is it that I speak to vets on a regular basis who are stressed out, overworked and burnt out?
There is no doubt that there are many employers who provide supportive workplaces and appreciate the work-life balance of their staff. If this is you, be proud! Unfortunately, there is also a small minority of employers and workplaces who are damaging our graduates – people who still believe in the use/abuse/replace philosophy, or maybe think that cutting costs is the way to grow vet clinics rather than investing in happy, productive staff that generate good income or maybe are simply treating others the way they have been treated in the past (the old I did it so everybody should do it, model).
Where does the younger generation of vets fit?
Some of these people truly believe that the younger generation just doesn’t know hard work. That they are soft and lack a work ethic. This is not what I see or hear when I speak with vet students or talk with distressed newer graduates. The large, large majority of people want to work and are happy to work hard, as long as they also have time to do other things – spend time with friends and family, enjoy hobbies etc.
They just don’t want to eat, sleep and breathe vet. Sounds fair enough to me.
We all have individual responsibilities too
Of course, this is not a one-way street and employees also have responsibilities. Each of us has the individual responsibility to look after ourselves – to get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, maintain healthy relationships, develop ourselves both personally and professionally etc. From a legal viewpoint, employees are required to be fit for the inherent requirements of their job, both physical and psychological, as described in their job description. And they need to advise their employer if there is anything that prevents them from performing their duties. With this information, perhaps in conjunction with medical advice, the employer and employee can work together to manage the risk. It really is no different to relationship-centred care between veterinarian and client.
We all need a supportive workplace
But, to feel comfortable speaking up, a supportive workplace that respects the privacy of the individual is essential. The workplace culture needs to recognize that psychological injuries should be treated the same as physical injuries. We all go through hard times when we are not coping so well and this should not be a source of shame or a sign of a lack of backbone or strength. We will all differ in our ability to cope with adversity and we can all grow this capability with help and ongoing personal and professional development.
Just as it is no longer acceptable to smoke at work or to take X-rays without PPE, it is not acceptable to slash and burn your staff. As Bob Dylan said – the times, they are a changing.