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Top tips for boosting alertness at work

Everyone knows that being a vet is mentally challenging but it’s often underestimated just how physically demanding it is too. There aren’t many jobs where you’re on your feet all day and your brain doesn’t get any downtime either. Then there’s the fact that if your brain does switch off for a bit, it could be an animal’s wellbeing could take the hit.

Staying alert constantly at work is no mean feat – especially if you were up with a patient the night before or have been losing sleep over a tricky case or client. Here are some great ways to boost your alertness to make sure you stay on the ball throughout the day.

Sleep better, not longer

Like the majority of people, you probably don’t have time to schedule in any more ‘sleep time’ but are you actually managing to reliably get a good night’s sleep during the time that you’re in bed? In today’s anxiety-ridden world, eight hours of heavenly slumber can swiftly be replaced with a night of frustrated tossing and turning. There are tons of things that you can do to improve your night’s sleep from developing a ‘wind-down’ routine, to writing a to-do list for the next day to alleviate worry.  Even a small amount of extra sleep can make a huge difference to both your body and brain the next day.1,2

Use it, don’t lose it

A large majority of our work we do on automatic pilot, without even really thinking about it. Rather than just going through the motions, challenge your brain at regular intervals to keep it in shape and switched on. You never know, evaluating your activities might just allow you to identify possible improvements. Similarly, challenging you brain to think faster may also help you to feel more energised.3

Get moving after mid-day

We all know the feeling when the ‘3pm slump’ sets in – you finally sit down for 10 minutes to catch up on an important task but tiredness takes over and your focus falters. There are not many (or any?) vets who have the luxury of being able to hit the gym during their lunch break – or that even get a lunch break for that matter – but research shows that even low intensity exercise can overcome tiredness and boost alertness. So instead of staring blankly at a screen, get up and take a walk to the staff room. Or have a quick run up the stairs. Even 30 seconds of getting blood flowing is sure to boost your subsequent productivity.4

iStock_000028800368_LargeHave a break or mix it up
Researchers suggest that a short break every 90 to 120 minutes is necessary to keep a sufficient alertness level. If short breaks are judiciously used, they allow alleviation of fatigue and increase productivity and efficiency by breaking work monotony. However, breaks in veterinary practice are often unexpected luxuries rather than planned events. Varying your work tasks has been shown to be almost as favourable as taking a break in boosting alertness so if you can’t take a break, intersperse your original task with an unrelated ‘secondary task’.4

Get social

When you feel exhausted, sometimes the last thing you want to do is chat with colleagues but studies have shown that having a chat or a laugh is more likely to wake you up than sedentary ‘alone time’.5
Laughing is a proven stress-buster and can also boost energy levels. Plus, people who are more social are generally happier and tend to sleep better.6

Don’t forget to drink

We all do it – go all day without a drink because we’ve simply forgotten or want to avoid having to go to the toilet. However, dehydration can be a key culprit to drowsiness and low levels of alertness. While coffee may provide quick fix stimulation, the effects are likely to lessen over time if you are a regular coffee drinker and could lead to a post-caffeine crash. Try cutting the caffeine or sticking to just one coffee per day to really feel the benefits. And don’t forget, caffeine comes in many guises – surprising sources of caffeine include chocolate, soft drinks and some medications for example.

Snack smart

Just as many of us fail to keep hydrated, many of us also forget to eat. Similarly, it can be tempting just to binge on that box of chocolates that lovely client left. Eating healthy snacks regularly can help keep energy levels and mood up as well as help cognitive function7 but a sugar splurge could have quite the opposite effect. Make sure you choose your snacks wisely.

Tune in during your time out

Listening to music has been shown to act as an environmental stimulant and increase alertness. So why not grab your iPod and tune in while typing up your notes?

Prioritise posture

Standing or sitting up straight as opposed to slouching not only increases energy levels but can also give you a self-confidence lift.8

Chew-se wisely

Obviously no one wants to be talking to owners while chewing gum, or end up with a minty addition to your surgical site, but chewing a piece of gum may be one way to improve cognitive performance. So if you’ve got a break in the day and fancy freshening up, grab some gum and get chewing.

Take a deep breath

Nope, it’s not just the key to maintaining composure when you’ve just been urinated on by a dog in your first consult of the day, breathing deeply from your diaphragm can help get your blood pumping to boost energy levels all day long.10

Moderate your surroundings to keep stimulated

While a short blast of cold air might wake you up, prolonged periods of being slightly chilly can actually make you sleepy, as this mimics the body’s natural body temperature drop at night. Make sure you stay warm to keep alert. Exposure to light and a trip outside can also help moderate your circadian rhythm to make sure you stay alert. If you don’t live far from work, why not walk or cycle to really get your brain and body booted into action? No matter how tired you feel, this is a guaranteed way to get your day off to a flying start.

Beat the blues

Perpetual tiredness despite getting good sleep and enlisting various techniques to reduce drowsiness can be an early sign of depression. Women are thought to be almost three times more likely than men to suffer from depression11 and veterinary professionals are also thought to be at an even greater risk.12 If you’re worried you could be affected, it’s definitely worth seeking professional help as beating the blues is a must for overall wellbeing.

Does your alertness suffer throughout the day or have you got any good tips for keeping on top form?

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  2. Bonnet, M. H., & Arand, D. L. (1995). We are chronically sleep deprived. SLEEP-NEW YORK-, 18, 908-911.
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  5. Eriksen, C. A., ÅKERSTEDT, T., KECKLUND, G., & ÅKERSTEDT, A. (2005). COMMENT ON SHORT-TERM VARIATION IN SUBJECTIVE SLEEPINESS 1. Perceptual and motor skills, 101(3), 943-948.
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  10. Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses, 67(3), 566-571.
  11. Burt, V. K., & Stein, K. (2001). Epidemiology of depression throughout the female life cycle. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 63, 9-15.
  12. Bartram, D. J., Yadegarfar, G., & Baldwin, D. S. (2009). Psychosocial working conditions and work-related stressors among UK veterinary surgeons. Occupational medicine, 59(5), 334-341.