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We Need To (Re)define Resilience In Veterinary Medicine

Updated: Sep 28


Have you ever overheard someone saying about another person that ‘they are just not cut out to be a vet/vet nurse/intern/resident’ or perhaps you have been in a difficult work or life situation and hesitated to speak up or ask for help out of a worry to appear 'weak'? What is this judgment about and where is it coming from?


There is no doubt about it: being a veterinary professional can sometimes be quite tough. Long working hours, out of hour work, emergency situations, difficult decisions often under time pressure, dealing with clients (and/or colleagues, not to mention ourselves!) in heightened emotional states, sometimes low financial remuneration depending on role and geographical location, often significant physical demands, skipped breaks, disrupted sleep, high responsibility but limited resources, and the list goes on.


Therefore, it seems logical to assume that it takes a certain type of person to cope with these challenges. Someone who can just 'get on with it'. Someone with grit, determination and stamina. Someone who is always prepared to go the extra mile. In short, a real toughie.


But what if this is not the case?


Resilience has been extensively researched and there is mounting evidence that the one-dimensional concept of resilience (with resilience being essentially synonymous with hardiness or toughness) is not only unhelpful but largely untrue. For example, in professional athletes and in the military it has been shown that grinding through adverse experiences solely relying on grit and persistence leads to a greater risk of physical injury and poor decision making, which may have catastrophic consequences (Magness, 2022).


Of course, some degree of grit and persistence are components of resilience, but there is much, much more to it, including:

  • Having a high degree of self-awareness, including awareness of our limitations and personal needs.

  • Having a realistic awareness of our resources and managing our available resources wisely .

  • Psychological flexibility, which is the ability to embrace reality, including fully acknowledging (rather than denying or suppressing) difficult thoughts, emotions and feelings, and then being able to the things which matter to us, in alignment with our values, despite these difficult inner experiences. This requires emotional courage and acceptance of vulnerability.

  • Being as compassionate to ourselves as we are to others, and being prepared take appropriate measures (e.g. by setting boundaries or speaking up) if our needs are not met.

  • The ability to ask for help. Yes, that's right: In a very comprehensive review paper on the topic of resilience, Wu et al. (2013) state that 'both the presence of social support and the behaviour of seeking social support have been associated with psychological hardiness'.

The point here is that many resilience factors are learnable skills, and that resilience is not about putting up with everything: Setting reasonable boundaries, asking for help or even leaving an unhealthy work environment may actually be signs of inner strength.


So why is it important to reconsider our attitude to resilience in veterinary medicine? Well, these are unprecedented and complex times for our profession. We are dealing with high work pressures and attrition rates, as well as a high prevalence of mental health challenges. There is no need to put additional pressures on ourselves or others in an attempt to conform to an outdated definition of 'being tough'.


What if we all chose to do what we are generally good at, including those of us in leadership positions: adopting an evidence-based approach and learning from other professions. By updating our collective understanding of resilience, and working on our more flexible resilience skills, we may not only make the 'just not cut out' judgement a thing of the past, but also build more sustainable and joyful work environments for ourselves and others.


References:

Magness, Steve. Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness. HarperCollins, 2022.

Harris, Russ. The Reality Slap: How to survive and thrive when life hits hard. 2nd Ed. Little, Brown Book Group, 2012.

Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, Kim JJ, Calderon S, Charney DS, Mathé AA.

Understanding resilience. Front Behav Neurosci. 2013 Feb 15;7:10.

doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00010.

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