Almost 1 in 5 UK vets afraid to take sick leave

Nearly two-thirds of vets (63%) worked when they didn’t feel well enough in the last year, according to new figures released today by the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

Most worryingly, a fifth said they were “uncomfortable” to take time off during sickness.

More than 1,300 vets responded to the BVA ‘Voice of the Veterinary Profession’ survey, which found that the problem is most noticeable amongst locum vets and employees, but is also an issue amongst partners and the self-employed.

Across both clinical and non-clinical roles over half of vets reported working when they were unwell.

Nearly one in five (18%) of the vets surveyed said they do not take sick leave because they feel uncomfortable doing so.

The survey showed this was a trend more common amongst younger vets with 25% of under 35s compared to 19% of 35 to 54-year-olds, and 8% of over 55s working when they felt unwell.

Female vets were also twice as likely to struggle on with 21% compared to 11% of male vets saying they had worked when sick in the last 12 months.

The BVA warns that the problem of ‘presenteeism’ could have a longer-term impact on vets’ wellbeing.

The association said it wished to remind all vets that they have a legal right not to attend work when they aren’t well enough to do so and that any concerns should be discussed with managers. Its legal helpline is available to members to provide further guidance on taking sick leave.

‘Phone in dead’

The survey found that one of the main reasons given for not taking time off when sick are concerns about the impact on colleagues and worries about “letting the team down”.

One respondent said: “Because I would leave the practice understaffed and the remaining vets would have to work a lot harder and longer as a result.”

Another said: “Being ill is not an option. The practice is short-staffed.”

Members also reported a perceived culture of working through sickness. One respondent said: “The veterinary industry, on the whole, has a ‘phone in dead’ policy i.e. “don’t call in sick”.

Another explained: “[I] feel that I am judged for taking time off, even when I lost my voice and was unable to consult.”

A small number of responses (36 of the 450 vets who commented) mentioned that they did not receive sick pay or only received limited sick pay, so they avoided taking sick leave for financial reasons.

The findings are released ahead of a BVA Congress session on ‘Veterinary workplaces: The good, the bad and the ugly’ at London Vet Show at 11.10-12.30 on Thursday, November 14 with Gudrun Ravetz and Ben Sweeney.

The BVA is considering the results as part of its Good Workplace Working Group, chaired by Gudrun, which is developing guidance on what makes a good veterinary workplace.

Commenting, BVA president Daniella Dos Santos said: “We know that veterinary workplaces are under enormous pressure from staff shortages, and none of us wants to feel like we are letting our colleagues down, but presenteeism only stores up more problems for the future.

Working when you are ill puts your own health and wellbeing at risk longer-term and can also put your colleagues, clients and patients under your care at risk.

“It’s particularly worrying that some of our colleagues feel pressure to work when they feel unwell, especially younger members. As a profession, we have made huge steps forward in recognising the issues around mental health and supporting one another and being physically unwell should be the same.

“Anyone who is concerned should speak to their manager and remember that BVA members can always get free advice and support via the BVA legal helpline.”