Mentoring is a great way of helping new vets adjust to the stress of a veterinary practice—but how do you still help them manage that adjustment during the stress of a pandemic while managing your own mental health at the same time? By Kathy Graham
Starting work as a recent graduate is challenging enough, never mind at the height of a global pandemic. The Federal Government confirmed veterinarians as being an essential service back in March. But while clinics have remained open, as long-time mentor Dr Michael Paton points out—Dr Paton has mentored for 15 years, the last five with the AVA’s graduate mentoring program—they’ve had to implement safety measures and precautions that have added to everyone’s stress load, and in turn put even more pressure on new vets hoping to prove themselves and make a good impression.
“At the initial stage of the pandemic when across Australia things were changing, often practices had to re-organise their workforces to ensure that if somebody got sick, they didn’t lose the whole team. So, they were often dividing into two teams. They were setting up biosecurity protocols around ‘will people come in, will we collect their animals in the carpark?’ So, as well as all those usual things with starting in a practice, mentees are also walking into a workforce which is already quite stressed because of trying to cope with all these new ways of doing things which tend to take a lot longer.”
Melbourne-based vet, Dr Ashish Pathania, is another mentor with the AVA’s program, who only graduated himself four years ago. He agrees that “it’s stressful for new vets anyway. But now it’s like, ‘okay, everything I’ve learned about being a vet is very different to what it used to be’.” The vet/client relationship is a case in point. At vet schools, students learn how to interact with pet owners on the assumption they’ll be doing so in person, but now with COVID-19 and the requirement to be contact-free, Dr Pathania says “you’re taking away that personal interaction with the clientele which makes relationship building and creating a rapport much more difficult”.
This begs the question: how can mentors best be there for their mentees in these unprecedented times?
“I think by being able to admit that we don’t have all the answers right now, and accepting that,” advises Monika Cole, who manages the AVA program, which currently boasts 295 participating vets. “Just being able to say to the graduates, ‘I’m your mentor. I’m feeling overwhelmed by this situation too’, is reassuring to mentees who might otherwise think that not knowing everything is a failing.”
Living with pandemic uncertainty makes it virtually impossible to plan for the future. For mentees, this means having to indefinitely shelve plans to get a specialist qualification, say, or work overseas which, says Dr Paton, “is a real dampener on that professional enthusiasm that many young people just coming into the profession have”. With so much unpredictability, he finds it’s far more helpful to keep mentees “focused on the here and now and what they can do in the very short term in terms of improving their professional and interpersonal skills”.
The fact that mentees may be struggling more than usual does put “a bit more stress on mentors who are being forced to be there more emotionally for them”, concedes Cole noting that it’s recommended mentees and mentors in the program catch up once a month for at least an hour. “Nowadays though, I think many mentors feel they need to catch up more often, to make sure they’re more available just in case the need is there.” This isn’t so easy, especially since many mentors are actually busier than previously. “Some of the mentors would be owners or part-owners of businesses where a lot of attention is required on not only how the business is running financially but also their biosecurity protocols, so to then give extra attention to their mentee as well is, I think, a struggle,” says Dr Paton. “That said, I think sharing those experiences so it’s not just ‘me talking about your struggles, but rather we’re struggling together’, can be a positive to the relationship.”
Which is why self-awareness on the part of the mentor is key. “Knowing your limits, being able to say you can’t cope and that’s okay … I feel it’s very important that you have that,” says Cole. “It’s very difficult sometimes when you’re a giving person. You need to know when your bucket’s full and you need to let that empty out a little bit. It’s that real understanding of yourself and knowing when you need to reach out for support.”
“Mentors are generally trained to recognise those signs that they’re not coping themselves,” adds Dr Paton. “I’ve been quite surprised at times with people who I think are very capable who’ve said, ‘Yeah, I had to see a psychologist and it was very useful’.”
On the whole though, Cole has found that especially the very experienced mentors are adaptable and resilient. “That’s why they’re in the program,” she says.
Or else they take a break. Cole says some AVA mentors have asked for the year off because they feel over-committed. “I was on a mentoring webinar a little while ago,” she says, “and that’s come through from other companies with mentoring programs as well. They’ve noticed about a 10 per cent shift in people deferring their mentoring duties.”
Similarly, Dr Pathania is aware of colleagues who’ve had to step back from the mentor-mentee relationship which unfortunately affects the mentee as well. “As a mentor you don’t want to leave your mentee to either sink or swim,” he says. “So there’s that kind of guilt potentially for the mentor. Unfortunately as vets, we do tend to have that personality where we look after others before we look after ourselves. So I think it’s important that mentors do look after themselves so they can also be in a position to look after others.”