Are you okay?

Written and kindly supplied by Rosie Overfield Cert IV VN, Diploma in Professional Counseling

Working as a veterinary nurse is a rewarding and dynamic career choice. We have the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of both our patients and our clients. However, the care that we provide day after day can sometimes come at a cost. We have all experienced the fatigue that is particular to our profession. Additionally, we may have seen the long-term effects of that fatigue on our fellow veterinary nurses; chronic illness, irritability, depression and sometimes the decision to leave the profession entirely.

A great veterinary nurse is one who prioritises the care of themselves and their workmates, not just our patients. Care is about your emotional, mental and physical health. Care is about responding effectively when you feel you are not coping.

So what should we do if we suspect a fellow veterinary nurse isn’t coping?

Depression and mental health concerns can reduce a veterinary nurse’s ability to function in all aspects of their life. Affecting more than 800,000 Australians per year, mental health concerns have cost the modern workplace more than half a million lost work days every month. Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety now account for approximately one third of all claims for income protection insurance. Unfortunately, lack of awareness and understanding in the workplace can compound this problem. However, armed with the right information and resources, we can all assist our mates who may be experiencing a mental health concern.

I want to help my mates at work who could be experiencing depression. What should I look out for?

There are a number of presentations of depression and a number of unique situations which can lead to depression. Most commonly, veterinary nurses notice behavioural changes first as they are the things we can see. Common behaviours, thoughts and physical symptoms can include not getting things done at work, complaining of headaches and extreme fatigue, significant weight loss or gain, inability to concentrate, sickness, making self-deprecating comments which are out of character and an inability to cope with the pressures of the practice. Severity and duration of these symptoms is an important factor to look out for. Has your team mate just had a ‘bad day’ or is this now a pattern in the practice?

I work with a vet nurse who I think suffers from anxiety. How should I handle this?

Firstly, know that this is an important issue, especially if you feel it is affecting your colleague’s ability to work at their best. Take the time to get involved and talk. Ask open-ended questions with empathy:
–    How have you been lately?
–    I’ve noticed you don’t seem yourself at the moment. What’s been going on for you?

Take the time to listen and recognise you are not required to ‘fix’ the issue. Ask your workmate how you can be of support. If you feel equipped, share any resources with them or suggest they make an appointment with their GP. Remind them that mental health concerns are just like physical concerns.

My Head Nurse who is suffering from depression has had to take additional sick days. The other nurses and I feel this is becoming unfair. Are we wrong?

This is a very common question and can be a major issue for the practice as a whole. Firstly, ask yourself ‘would I feel differently if the nurse had a physical injury such as a broken leg?’ Unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to mental concerns and illnesses. Just because you cannot see the illness doesn’t mean it is not there.

Practice empathy and understanding with your colleague and help them plan their days in the clinic. Liaise with your Practice Manager about the realities of timeframes to ensure you minimise conflict. Sometimes projects and additional tasks need to be discussed and put on hold to avoid further stress.

The most important thing is to support your Head Nurse when she IS in the practice. Most people are VERY aware of the impact of their absence. Returning to work after an extended period can be a scary time. Lots of encouragement and acceptance goes a long way to having a colleague working productively, sooner. It is important to normalise mental health concerns and look after your mates at work.

What resources should my practice have regarding mental illness?

There are many professional, free resources available to workplaces in Australia. Downloadable handouts and information flyers are provided by organisations such as:

•    Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au 
•    Lifeline www.lifeline.org.au 
•    Black Dog Institute  www.blackdoginstitute.org.au 
•    R U Ok   www.ruokday.com

Additionally, workplaces should strive to ‘normalise’ the experience of stress and compassion fatigue in the team. Encourage discussion, sharing and reporting without fear of judgement. Give people information and tools for self-care and consider spending some of your training budget on workshops with mental health coaches. Foster a workplace based on open-communication, empathy and compassion. Minimise a culture of blame, ignorance and judgement.