Keywords: impostor syndrome, resilience, wellbeing, mental health, workplace culture, flexibility
High achieving ‘impostors’
In my first blog I wrote about dealing with perfectionism, although I didn’t realise this was something I was striving towards until someone pointed it out to me. During this time, I researched perfectionism and also came across impostor syndrome, which I identified with and occasionally I can still get sucked into. Impostor syndrome was first introduced by Clance and Imes in 1978 when they published their research involving 178 high achieving women:
“They consider themselves to be “impostors.” Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. For example, students often fantasize that they were mistakenly admitted to graduate school because of an error by the admissions committee.”
I actually laughed out loud when I read this definition. Having been told I didn’t attend the ‘right school’ to study veterinary science at university (see January’s blog post), when self-doubt started creeping in, I thought the University of Liverpool had made a mistake. Passing finals wasn’t enough to convince me either because in my mind, I was lucky with the questions that came up on the exams. One area I really excelled in was being my own worst enemy. I definitely received top marks for discounting a compliment, finding reasons to down-play my university scholarship and engineering theories of how I slipped through the net to gain a place at vet school. I perceived that luck had greater role in my success than my own achievements.
Falling into a canal and coming out with a gold watch
This was one of my grandad’s favourite phrases to say about me. I actually thought that it was a famous saying until I googled it and I couldn’t find anything about it! When my grandad used to say this to me, I assumed he meant that I was incredibly lucky. It’s only more recently I’ve considered that maybe he didn’t mean it in that way. Perhaps he meant that when faced with a tricky situation, I worked hard to turn it around into a positive experience? Unfortunately, I am unable to clarify exactly what my grandad meant by this not-so famous saying and I can’t remember the context of the situations when he said this to me. Perhaps that I am a lucky person? Thinking about it, a gold-watch wouldn’t be floating in the water so it’s unlikely I’d find it whilst swimming to the side to pull myself out of the canal. It is more likely that a gold watch would be at the bottom of the canal floor in the slimy deposits (I fell off a stand-up paddle board in a canal once so I’m familiar with the slimy deposits!) so was he in fact saying that I am a resilient person to trudge through the sliminess and persevere to find something valuable thereby turning it into a more positive situation?
Am I resilient?
Resilience is one of the buzz words in the veterinary world and continues to be discussed in the media and in online forums. Do I think that I am a resilient person? In all honesty, I find that hard to answer but I am much happier to describe myself as someone who is tenacious, determined and persistent. Why do I find it difficult to describe myself as resilient when I have no problems identifying with synonymous qualities? As I have already mentioned, resilience has been a hot topic of conversation over the last few years and the focus of such conversations is that the veterinary profession should be seeking and helping to build up resilience in prospective and current vet and vet nurse students to improve retention of staff in practice. These conversations have made me question whether I am a resilient person or not. I think I am, but because I found it difficult to cope in practice as a new graduate, I think (I might be wrong!) generally I would be seen as being less resilient than my peers who spent more time in practice or are still working in practice. Of course, being a resilient individual is helpful in work and day-to-day life generally but is being resilient totally dependent on the individual person?
Being resilient is a dynamic and continual process (Moffett et al., 2015) and I recently read a paper shared by Jenny Moffett on a Facebook thread which suggested that resilience is often deemed an individual trait and doesn’t take into the consideration the social support often needed to help an individual recover from a situation (Southwick et al., 2016). In addition, an article written by Bethany Colaprete from Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine circulated by the Veterinary Team Brief last year stated that:
“Most veterinary professionals know that what happens in the workplace can impact their ability to cope individually.”
A review of the literature concerning veterinary mental health publications (n=59) found that the key themes that were deemed important for veterinary resilience were emotional competence, motivation, personal resources, social support, organisational culture, life balance, and wellbeing strategies (Matthew et al., 2016). Some of these themes are relevant to an individual and others relate to the situation/workplace of the person. This is why I applaud the work of SPVS and the RCVS with the Vet Wellbeing Awards as I feel these awards recognise that individuals require a supportive environment to continue to have the motivation, emotional competence and life balance in order to maintain their resilience.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change” (Albert Einstein)
One of the definitions of resilience in the Southwick et al. (2016) paper is to “bend but not break” so if people would like to employ resilient staff, is it unreasonable to expect some resilience from your employer to provide a measure of flexibility to help you during difficult times? I agree with Einstein, instead of having a high turnover of staff which is incredibly costly and damaging for morale in the workplace, it seems logical to allow for some flexibility and change. I appreciate that this will come down to an individual’s situation and the circumstances within the business but even small changes can make a significant difference and there are practices out there that have achieved this. I’ve witnessed this on farms where one or two small changes can have a snowball effect on the health and welfare of dairy cows. I know I’m treading on dangerously thin ice here by comparing cows to employees but most vets (myself included) harp on about being proactive as opposed to reactive so instead of waiting for employees to reach a crisis, I think it’s important to identify and provide an environment for people to thrive in. There’s a Wellbeing Checklist on the SPVS website to see how your practice is doing in terms of improving staff wellbeing which can be used as a starting point and to obtain some ideas of what could be implemented.
As a new grad suffering with self-doubt and sleep deprivation, I asked for help and it wasn’t easy for me to do because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or a failure but now I can see that it was a brave step requiring a lot of courage. My colleagues rallied around and proposed a plan to help me in the short-term. I was very grateful but this plan didn’t come to fruition. Comparatively during my PhD, life threw me a few curve balls so I found myself asking for help. This time, changes were implemented and I completed my PhD. I know it’s difficult to compare a small business with an academic institution but the changes made by my supervisor weren’t dramatic but they made a dramatic difference to me. This demonstrated that I had been listened to and the effect of someone hearing your voice shouldn’t be underestimated because I felt valued. The Vet Wellbeing Awards are demonstrating that practices are capable of implementing change in order to improve the wellbeing of their staff and I am extremely pleased that these practices are being recognised for making such important changes.
I was a pretty good new graduate and after my bad start in practice, I thought I’d never step foot inside a practice again but due to my tenacious and determined nature, I did! My clinical skills are limited, which some days I find very frustrating but at least I am there and I enjoy it (most of the time!). My progress is slow (and sometimes I take a few steps back) but thanks to the support of ‘Team G’ at White Cross Vets in Gateacre (Liverpool), I am still obtaining my clinical fix!
Is there such a thing as being too resilient? I’ll save that bad boy for another day!
Stacey Blease – a vet thinking aloud
Clance P. R. and Imes S. (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
Moffett J., Matthew S., and Fawcett A. (2015) Building career resilience. In Practice 37 pp. 38-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/inp.g3958
Southwick, S. M., Sippel, L., Krystal, J., Charney, D., Mayes, L., and Pietrzak, R. (2016). Why are some individuals more resilient than others: the role of social support. World Psychiatry, 15(1), pp. 77–79. http://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20282
Colaprete, B. (2017) Wellness Revolution series: Build Resilience & Improve Wellbeing pp. 14-17. https://www.veterinaryteambrief.com/sites/default/files/attachments/Wellness_Build%20Resilience%20%26%20Improve%20Wellbeing.pdf
SPVS Wellbeing Checklist: https://spvs.org.uk/wellbeing2016quiz/