Sick as a dog: presenteeism is a problem in the vet profession, says BVA

Posted On: 
5th November 2019

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). BVA is warning that the problem of ‘presenteeism’ could have a longer-term impact on vets’ wellbeing.

The results, from over 1300 responses to the BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, found that the problem is more noticeable amongst locum vets (69% have worked when they’ve not felt well enough) and employees (64%) but is also an issue amongst partners and the self-employed (57%). It’s more common for vets in clinical practice (65%) than in non-clinical roles (51%). In all of these sectors 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. This is more common amongst younger vets (25% of under 35s compared to 19% of 35-54-year olds, and 8% of over 55s) and female vets (21% compared to 11% of male vets).

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

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 said: “The veterinary industry on the whole has a 'phone in dead' policy ie don't call in sick!” and 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 14 November with Gudrun Ravetz and Ben Sweeney. 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. Ultimately, it’s important to create a workplace culture that supports the entire veterinary team to prioritise their own physical and mental health.”