All Creatures Great and Small – would you apply for a post COVID position at Siegfried Farnon’s practice?

Dear Editor,

A new series is now on view in Australia. So much has changed since the days of James Herriot (though nothing can detract from the beautiful countryside). I remember reading these books in my first year of study in Veterinary Science at Sydney University. They were a powerful tonic and incentive to continue – beyond the heavy “pure science” subjects – physics and chemistry that were part of first year study (and a real struggle for my brain). Through the amusing trials and tribulations, there was a positive future waiting for James. As was the case in those days, he became a trusted, valued and highly rewarded partner of the practice, attaining an almost idyllic family and work lifestyle that inspired so many to join our profession.

The factors that enabled the fictional James to flourish, have long gone from the world of independent veterinary practice. Culture has changed, farming has changed, village life has changed. Veterinary service delivery has changed and will continue to change (as evidenced by Ian Neville’s recent article in The Veterinarian on the commodification of the Veterinary Industry). Vets joining our profession are expected to make the same sacrifices, but without hope of the same rewards at the end. Awareness of the issues is being raised, but with media interest in the ‘bad news’ without providing hope for the future, I despair for those who read the stories and see ‘no good end’ for them in sight. In this regard, the media is remiss in not providing the ‘good news’ stories that are emerging and may even exacerbate the problems they are reporting on.   

Back in the fictional life of James Herriot, in episode one, James joins a one-person vet practice that has a history of churning through assistants. Clients are used to encountering a “new assistant” and James’ success in finding a secure footing would surely not have happened if Siegfried’s old friend and housekeeper was not taking care of his team. I doubt in today’s veterinary world where newly qualified professionals have more choices, whether any veterinary assistant would be happy to apply for such a position. Or, that many would have the modern equivalent of the psychosocial and business support that ultimately benefited Siegfried and his practice.

To create a brighter future, veterinary practices great and small, have the scope to change the profession for the better entirely within their grasp, if the owner/leader is willing to do what is needed to make this happen. If Siegfried was alive today, I have no doubt that he would have been delighted at the scope for innovation in practice leadership. Siegfried was lucky to have had the options of trying out many different assistants until the right one ‘James’ clicked. With today’s recruitment crisis, he might have had a little more trouble finding the right assistant. Like most of us, I am sure that Siegfried would have welcomed the option of finding the ‘best fit’ for his practice through more scientific means, if such options were available. Fortunately, along with the challenges change has brought with it opportunity for those willing to take it on.

One approach I have been privy too (as a mentor) that is genuinely transformational, has been work done by Pauline Willis of Lauriate. Pauline is an Australian Organisational Psychologist who intervenes to help leaders lead! This is done via a light but very powerful touch, underpinned by her expertise in the science of people at work. Before meeting Pauline, I had no conception of what an Organisational Psychologist was or what she might offer by focusing on the practice context rather than the other type of psychologists we are more familiar with, who focus only at the level of the individual and are all too often called upon to resolve mental health issues that have progressed to a level where there is risk of mental health breakdown, or worse.

Research and practice from this lesser-known domain of psychological science to the veterinary professions, shows that organisations of any size or type can shine if they focus on creating conditions for success, rather than being in constant ‘firefighting mode’ because the conditions are not in place. Effective communication and creating or building upon an existing culture of trust and respect lie at the heart of change. Taking a ‘conditions thinking’ approach to veterinary practice leadership does not replace but enhances clinical expertise. This is not about ‘contracting in’ the expertise you do not have, it is about developing new ways of working and leading as a clinician. With support that enhances mental health and well-being, enabling people to flourish in the workplace and life.  

Facing the incredible consequences of overwork, early in 2020 just after the onset of the COVID pandemic, colleague and owner of Blackwater Vets in the UK, Dr Ola Jankowska engaged Pauline to assist her with ‘team building’. This has resulted in a restart (or reboot!) for the practice. Ola was being insightful and pre-emptive when taking this approach. She was aware of the pressures that were crushing her spirit and knew she needed to do something. Carrying a heavy weight on her shoulders, she knew she needed to act before things reached a point of no return for both herself and the practice. In the tight knit community of Mersea Island, a picturesque holiday destination situated a little way off the Essex Coast of the UK, Ola was introduced to Pauline & her partner Andy by Puss E Cat, a rumbustious tuxedo cat fond of hunting rats and pigeons. It is not unusual in such a village for people to access professionals known to them through personal introduction or engagement. What is more unusual, is that the support for Ola and her team was provided in pandemic style, by both Pauline and myself virtually, via Zoom. With Ola & the team in West Mersea in the UK and Pauline in Perth whilst I was engaging from Melbourne.

Lauriate usually works with larger corporate clients, but Pauline has a heart for smaller veterinary practices that face the same challenges as larger business but with few resources. Pauline has now presented her work with Blackwater Vets at the International Congress of Psychology hosted by the International Union of Psychological Science. Most recently as part of the Australian Psychology Society’s Psychology Week programme on December 5, 2021 in an open session for the veterinary profession. In this, we worked together with Ola to present the story of Blackwater Vets so others could learn about this way of working. Veterinary professionals are now able to view the recording of this webinar free of charge and I would encourage anyone looking for a brighter more hopeful future for the profession to do so.

How did this work? All employees are heard, and a forensic eye placed over communication and ways of working. The process was supported with deceptively short but powerful surveys (I have completed such a survey as part of the process). Organisational psychology has many tools to help veterinary practices – including communication & co-operation mapping, team diagnostics & personality profiling, mental health support. Pauline emphasised that these tools were ‘prescribed’ and used in specific ways for Ola’s situation, so it is important not to focus excessively on copying a ‘cookbook’ approach or to bring in ‘tools’ in the hope of creating and sustaining change. There are many jargon words at work here! But the end result in Ola’s practice has been “rebirth” i.e., the clinic is now working better than it has ever worked. Significant day to day problems are faced with all the resources that a team can muster – not just the frazzled response of an overworked principal! In essence the team as a whole is increasingly more resilient, and this means that individuals, including Ola can flourish as well.

My experience working as a mentor with Blackwater Vets through this process has shown me there is an enormous treasure chest of wisdom and expertise to offer that is not usually or commonly accessed by our profession. An Organisational Psychologist like Pauline who is a registered health professional like us, offers a very different approach and outcome to a standard ‘business or management consultant’ or ‘coach’.

Key to success was that Ola has committed to the last. Including weekly, one hour Zoom meetings. Time demanding at the outset, but very productive. How this time is used, was needs based ‘just in time’, tailored support on every level needed.  This process, which involves coaching as well as organisational psychology consultancy – addresses in ‘real time’, areas of leadership in which vets are currently poorly trained & prepared. Ola’s skills were already well developed, so Pauline would describe what she has done as providing psychosocial support at key times, together with support for Ola to fine tune her leadership skills through ‘validating’ what she is doing well, as well as advancing her capability as a leader with new ideas, skills, and tools. In time, Ola will no longer need this intensive external support. We do, however, anticipate that our work together as Mentor & Mentee will continue long into the future, with much valued support from Pauline being accessed when something new or unexpected that we have not already covered, needs to be addressed.

Last and by no means least, there is a key outcome I have not yet shared with you. I had myself left the profession some years ago. Being valued as a Mentor in this process has given me an appreciation of skills and capabilities that had been invisible to me, as well as renewing my passion for practice. Whilst it is early days, I am now once again a practicing vet and beginning to see the delight in my profession once again.

Dr Ivor Wolstencroft

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