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Newly Ill?

Becoming ill whilst working or studying in the veterinary profession is daunting. We're used to working in an intellectually, physically and emotionally demanding environment where the stakes are often high. We work long and sometimes irregular hours. When things get tough, we're used to pushing ourselves so we can get through and get it done.  


Developing a condition that limits you in any way - physically or mentally - can be a huge shock. Not only do we have to deal with the uncertainty of being unwell, and the limits that may come with a new illness, but often part of our sense of self-worth and emotional well-being is tied in with our job or course of study. And then, on top of this, there may be other practical worries - how will I cope financially? How will this affect my relationships? Will I be able to look after my children/pets/others who depend on me?

The first thing to know if you are in this situation is - you are not alone! There are many of us out there in the veterinary profession, living and working with chronic illness every day. There are others among us who have chosen to, or been forced to give up working or studying in in the profession, or who have diversified out of clinical practice because of it. You can connect with some of us via our Facebook group - Veterinary Spoonholders UK - and hopefully find people who have been through (or are going through now) what you are experiencing. 

You may worry that you will not be able to continue to work in the profession with your illness. Vets and RVNs must consider the RCVS Codes of Conduct:

"[Vets and RVNs] must take reasonable steps to address adverse physical or mental health or performance that could impair fitness to practise; or, that results in harm, or a risk of harm, to animal health or welfare, public health or the public interest. "


This means that physical or mental ill-health is not an automatic barrier to working in the profession. Many of us do manage to continue to work - sometimes with adjusted hours or duties. However, it is important to be honest with yourself and your colleagues about what you can or should do.

Advice from the Front Lines

" Don't make any big decisions when first diagnosed. My gut reaction was that I was a burden to my employer, the uncertainty was uncomfortable to me, and it would be easier for everyone if I quit. With a little bit of hindsight (it's all still very new) quitting would have been a mistake"

" I've found that being completely open and telling everyone about my condition has helped. When I was first diagnosed and was coming to terms with my condition I told a select few colleagues but I was struggling with the symptoms and was very ‘boom and bust’. It was difficult to explain in the heat of the moment that I suddenly needed to sit in a cool, quiet, dark room for a while halfway through monitoring an anaesthetic! It’s just easier if I say ‘I’m having a moment- can you swap with my for 15 minutes?’ Rather than having to explain in detail!"

Image by Hassan Pasha

" I think as a profession we need to work on realising being ill is not the end. We also need to be more aware of rights in the workplace and find ways to have these conversations with management as unfortunately vets/vet nurses etc seem to feel that we cannot be unwell, we cannot be absent, we cannot be human and that we must drag ourselves through until we inevitably break because we don't want to let anybody down"

Highland Cattle

" Keep open an open line of communication with your employer. Some are more empathetic than others but all will appreciate being kept in the loop. It's easier to negotiate if you need reduced hours etc if employers feel you have been straight with them. Doctors can issue fit for work notes requesting reduced hours if need be."

" Avoid compromising your long term health by pushing yourself too hard in the short term. You may manage to fool folks into thinking you're fine for weeks or months but it will catch up with you, so pace yourself"

"  Know your rights, find out if your condition would be classed as a disability and read up on the equality act so that you are in a position to discuss with your employer what reasonable adjustments are and how and when they should be put in place."

" Listen to your body!!!! You need to rest, even if it’s an hour at lunch where you have quiet and relax in your car or take a slow walk. You NEED to listen to your body more than ever as it will remind you when you’re not doing too well"

" Find your way of approaching the physical aspects of the job. Tweak tasks to make them possible and utilise the equipment around you. If there's other equipment that will help you, ask your Health & Safety Team about getting it. The odd perch on a Foot stool here, whizzing around on a wheeled saddle stool there, or using manual handling equipment (which every one can benefit from!) Can make all the difference."

" Don't be scared to contact citizens advice for help. Being off on long-term sick can be incredibly difficult financially. CAB can advise if you are entitled to financial assistance. Try not to rush back to work before you are ready. Be aware that many insurance policies require you to be off work for a period of time CONTINUALLY before you can claim. The period of time resets if you return to work then go off again."

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