Stress is the name we give to our physical, mental and emotional response to excessive pressure or demands on us.

We experience the negative aspects of stress when the pressures or demands appear to be beyond our ability to cope. Like many other responses, stress has evolved to protect us and to help us avoid certain situations. The problem in our complex and sophisticated culture is that in most situations, neither fight nor flight offer a solution. We respond with a whole range of sensations (feeling sick, sweating), negative thoughts (“I’m a bad vet” “it must be my fault that client is angry…”) and feelings (anxiety, confusion, irritability etc). Whilst almost everyone will feel pressurised and most of us will feel stressed at times, it become problematic when stress is persistent and cannot be avoided or dealt with. It is worth being aware that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) consider that pressure can be good for you but that stress is a bad experience and should ideally be avoided.

When you are challenged, but are still able to handle the pressure, this can motivate you and engender a sense of being alive and focused. Indeed, people often deliberately put themselves in pressured situations through playing sport, climbing, public speaking and so on. It’s when we feel that we have no control, no choices and we judge that the circumstances we face are beyond our capacity to handle, that stress is experienced as negative and ultimately damaging.

Stress can lead to a wide variety of physical health problems, including vulnerability to infection, gastric problems, and skin conditions such as psoriasis

Stress can also alter our behaviour; generally, for the worse. Stressed people are more likely to respond to others in ways (anger, irritability, isolation) which will diminish the personal and professional relationships which ordinarily enhance our lives

Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to formal mental health problems such as depression or anxiety disorders. Remember, stress does not just follow excessive work pressures; our lives outside of work can also be stressful at times.

What can you do to reduce your stress level?

You may well think it’s your own fault that you are stressed because you can’t cope with the high demands of your job.  But the truth is, everyone has a breaking point and many people unfortunately experience high, and/or persistent, stress levels because they simply have too much to do; a veterinary career has many challenges.

Acknowledge your limits

If you have an unrealistically heavy workload, admitting that you can’t do it all is the first step towards getting the situation back under control. In the short term we all have periods when we have to work harder than we should, but these periods should be short-lived. Keeping going at 110% is likely not just to cause you to become stressed, or unwell, but also likely to cause you to work less effectively, which will undermine all the extra work you are doing

One of the best ways to take more control of your life is to get used to saying ‘no’ to people who keep piling the work on top of you. It takes some practice to say no politely when you are not used to it, so practice it. Ensuring that your managers know you are at, or beyond, your limit is helpful, as they can then be more realistic about what they ask of you. If you don’t, say no when you realise that the quality of your work could suffer and you could become so exhausted your health will be affected too.

Remember, saying ‘no’ occasionally is much easier than having to deal with the possible negative consequences of you saying ‘yes’ all the time.

If you find this difficult to do, an assertiveness course may help.

Pick and prioritise

Choose the tasks that need your attention the most and try to accept the fact that the rest will be left undone, at least at first. However, don’t fall into the trap of doing the fastest and easiest things first so that you can tick them off your list.

Try using the Franklin-Covey method of prioritising. This involves marking each task as one of the following:

A: Urgent and important

B: Important but not urgent

C: Urgent but not important

D: Neither urgent or important

Then concentrate on the A tasks before moving on to the Bs and Cs. If you’ve already accepted that you can’t possibly achieve everything on your list, then the D tasks are the ones you should leave undone. In time, you may learn to say ‘no’ to D-type tasks and only ‘yes’ to the A’s, B’s and C’s.

Avoid multi-tasking

Try not to be tempted to dip in and out of tasks. Instead, work out the best order to complete tasks in the same priority category; do the most important task first and only move on to the next one when you’ve finished.

Be good to yourself

Working through without breaks is much more likely to affect your performance and productivity in a negative way, whereas taking just 20 minutes off for lunch and regular mini breaks can help make you feel refreshed and more focused. Try scheduling regular short breaks throughout your working day. Even a few minutes down time out of every hour can have positive impacts on your overall efficiency.

Ask for help

If, even after trying to prioritise, you still feel weighed down by an impossible workload and that you are drowning in deadlines, it’s time to ask for help. Your employer or manager may not even realise how much pressure you’re under, so don’t suffer in silence. Talking to them about the difficulties you’re experiencing is by no means admitting defeat – indeed, it’s usually far more useful than pretending everything’s fine when it’s not.

A call to Vetlife Helpline may also help you to decide on a strategy for dealing with your stress.

See also Self Care