Dr Kate Stephen

Listening and learning: an update on the SRUC’s farm vet wellbeing project

Dr Kate Stephen is a behavioural scientist at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). In 2019 she was the recipient of the inaugural Sarah Brown Mental Health Research Grant to fund research into mental health in the farm animal veterinary sector with the aim of identifying how to better promote job satisfaction and break the cycle of negative thoughts and poor mental wellbeing identified amongst farm vets. Here she reports on some of her findings from the qualitative research she conducted with farm vets working in rural Scotland.

Just over a year ago, I could be found sitting in a quiet office in the north of Scotland, headphones on, recording telephone conversations with farm vets (with their consent).  A year later, I still think about some of the people I spoke to and what they told me. 

It was great to hear the ‘best bits of the job’ being described, such as the thrill of seeing a live calf after a complicated calving – which even vets of 40 years’ experience mentioned.  It was clear that for many, being a vet was so much more than a job and being a farm vet was a lifestyle choice which provided a sense of purpose, identity and fitted with their preference for spending time outdoors.  Some farm vets simply like farmers and love cows!

When your job is such a big part of what defines you and when positive outcomes can bring such joy, the impact of negative outcomes and the undermining effect of difficult times at work have the potential to leave vets vulnerable. Some vets described times when they sank into despair, were stripped bare of their confidence, or where the words and actions of others had squashed any joy they had felt about the job. For some, these were recollections of times past – what they then said about how they coped was inspirational.

How farm vets cope can vary between individuals. There is no silver bullet, more a range of actions and attitudes which they use to avoid or respond to low points. Some talked of light diversions such as songs to sing along to. Some talked more deeply, of their faith and/or their philosophy. Experience was highlighted as having a hugely beneficial effect. Others changed job, specialised, or diversified.

A dead calf is always going to be difficult to a farm vet who cares about their job. The inevitability of death and disease … and difficult farmers … means that coping mechanisms are necessary.  And because of this, some of the more experienced vets were keen to encourage new or more recent graduates, not least in coping with negative outcomes, as illustrated by this quote: “When I first graduated I’d think, ‘it’s all my fault, because it’s me’ and it’s only since I’ve gained more experience … realising that these fatalist irrational thoughts are getting me nowhere, and it’s exhausting”.

Clearly, vets of all ages and stages are likely to have times when they struggle. It is normal and to be expected. From personal experience, one vet advised, “at some point you do have to take responsibility for your own mental health, and that’s a way of empowering yourself, and helping yourself a little bit.” There was a consensus about the first step in this process – talking to someone.  Whether a family member, friend, work colleague, or a helpline. 

One vet emphasised, “It’s not an admission of failure to talk to someone else.  You can always find someone, even if you have to go to someone like Vetlife.  It’s a failure not to.”

I felt very privileged that so many farm vets talked to me about how they felt when they were struggling … and inspired by the ways they coped.  Much of what they said is available on www.howfarmvetscope.co.uk

For me, the take home message from our study is that throughout the highs and lows of practice as a farm vet and despite the isolation that can come with the job, you are not alone. There are other farm vets out there who know what life is like for you.  hey’d like you to talk to them about it.


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