One of the great sessions to come out of the Flexible stream at WellVet Weekend 2019 was presented by Professor Elinor O’Connor, and entitled ‘A Vet’s work is never done: The importance of after-work recovery for wellbeing’.
Elinor is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Professor of Occupational Psychology at the University of Manchester’s Business School. Elinor’s research interests include occupational stress and wellbeing at work, and she has been investigating wellbeing in the veterinary profession for a number of years, including working with the RCVS’s Veterinary Mind Matters Initiative to develop the Guide to Enhancing Wellbeing and Managing Work Stress in the Veterinary Workplace.
In an industry where 90% of veterinary surgeon respondents agreed that their work is stressful (Institute for Employment Studies, 2014), it is easy to see how managing our after-work recovery, and thereby increasing our wellbeing, is vital. In order to do so, we need to understand what after-work recovery is, and what steps we can take to maximise our down-time in healthy ways. ‘After-work Recovery’ can be defined as:
“The process of reducing or eliminating physical and psychological strain caused by job demands and stressful events at work” (Sonnentag, 2015)
Alongside the usual components of maintaining good wellbeing, such as physical exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep, there are four key elements of after-work recovery.
1). Psychological detachment: mentally disengaging from work i.e. not undertaking work tasks or even thinking about work
2). Relaxation: mood-boosting activities that lower our activation
3). Mastery: gaining skills or knowledge in subjects outside of work, providing us with challenges and opportunities
4). Control: being able to choose what we do outside of work, and when we do those things
As veterinary professionals, there are a few work-related factors that can prevent us from implementing the key elements into our day-to-day lives. For instance, for those of us that still do on-call work, it is often impossible to fully mentally detach from the working day, even if the phone doesn’t ring, as the pressure to be always contactable can take its toll. It can also be hard to relax whilst on call, meaning that we spend prolonged periods of time on edge and activated, which over time will lead to an increase in fatigue. Even if you don’t do on-call work, sometimes there is a pressure to go into work on your day off or stay late, which not only affects ones ability to disengage and relax, but also takes away ones sense of control.
The Recovery Paradox
A frustrating aspect to after-work recovery is that high levels of work stressors can impede our recovery, often at times when we need it the most. Increased tension makes it harder to relax; increased fatigue leads to less energy exerted for recreational activities; increased worry causes us to “ruminate about work-related concerns”.
Picture a time when you have arrived home from an exhausting day at work, and you are so tired that you can’t bring yourself to do anything beyond the functional (shower, dinner, bed), so you just enter a bit of a vegetative state, but meanwhile your mind is still whirling with all the things you had to deal with in the day. Whilst we may feel relieved to be at home and away from work, none of the above is actually helping us to be proactive about our after-work recovery. This may be fine if it happens only occasionally, but if this is reality a lot of the time then our recovery is being neglected, with adverse effects on our wellbeing.
“After-work recovery is NOT an automatic process. We need to actively pursue our own recovery” – Professor Elinor O’Connor
There will be some of us who actually enjoy and thrive on doing work-related activities outside of normal work hours, and this is also absolutely fine. Sometimes, it may even help in some way with our wellbeing. For instance, when I was a recent graduate I would sometimes go into work on my day off to watch/scrub in with a procedure or surgery that was unfamiliar to me, as I knew that by becoming more comfortable with it, I was less likely to feel stressed when faced with it myself. However, it is important that there is no pressure to do this from employers or oneself, and that sufficient time for recovery is still allowed. No matter how much you enjoy your work, it is essential that you rest. If you have to take some work home with you, take control over when you do it by scheduling it in alongside some scheduled breaks.
How can we realistically implement the four key elements of recovery? Whilst there is responsibility on employers and the veterinary industry to pursue the idea of the ‘sustainable workforce’, and a cultural shift towards prioritising wellbeing is long overdue, it is important that we take responsibility for our own after-work recovery. During this session, not only did Elinor provide some practical tips for enhancing our after-work recovery, but we also heard ideas from attendees, showing it is possible if we take control of it. Here are some suggestions:
- Create routines to mark the work-detachment boundary. For example, changing out of your work clothes as soon as you get home, switching your phone off, or not discussing work-related topics after a certain time at home.
- Use your commute to transition and decompress. Listen to music or a podcast, or drive a different way home so you have to concentrate on the route instead of ruminating on work.
- Install a brief ‘buffer’ period for when you first get home. This may be difficult if you have children or dependents, but even just five minutes to yourself can help. Maybe you can stay in the car for a few moments when you first arrive back, and consciously let go of your day. Or go for a walk, try meditating for a few minutes, or my personal favourite- jump straight into the shower! It means you don’t have to talk straight away, and you can literally wash the day away.
- Identify the things/activities that you enjoy. Quite often in our free time we are performing tasks we don’t really want to do or meeting the needs of others, which doesn’t make us feel in control, nor help with the mastery element of new things. Build into your weeks things that you love and look forward to.
- Try leisure activities that distract from work. These can be social things, as it can really help with mentally disengaging by spending time with people outside of the veterinary bubble, or individual activities (yoga and meditation, anyone?! – VY). As long as they allow you to switch off, that’s all that matters.
- Don’t always give in to fatigue. You won’t always feel like being proactive with recovery, and it’s important to recognise that sometimes it is ok to accept you are tired, and rest. However, sometimes we need to realise that putting in the effort to do something positive for ourselves will make us feel better overall.
- Actively choose to do nothing. If doing nothing is what you need, then choose it and take control of it. Allow yourself this time, and there is no need for guilt as it is an active part of your after-work recovery!
- Schedule activities and have accountability. For most of us it is more likely that we will do something if we are accountable to someone else. Always decide last minute not to go on that run? If you had a running buddy the sheer motivation to stick to what was agreed may be enough to get you in your running gear and out the door.
The majority of us will be able to pick at least a couple of suggestions and see how they might improve our ability to meaningfully engage with our after-work recovery. However, if you are reading this and feeling like it just seems impossible, Elinor suggests it may be time to seek help. Speak with a trusted friend/colleague, and please remember that Vetlife are there for us 24/7, 365 days a year for confidential support.
Overall, this session really got me reflecting on the things that I have naturally put in place to help my after-work recovery, such as showering when I first get home, and practicing yoga, but also helped me to identify where I could be more proactive. If you have any further ideas, we would love to hear them!
The Flexible stream this year was chaired by the veterinary creative and visionary powerhouse that is Ebony Escalona, founder of Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify. This is a celebration of the roles, opportunities, and diversity found within the veterinary profession, and is definitely worth checking out!