Cat Auden, VetLed

Presenting CPD on non-clinical skills which are vital to create positive change within the professions, the theme of this year’s VetLed Human Factors Conference 2023, was ‘Leading Change’. Speakers brought a variety of approaches to the topic, including leading change for the long term, exploring personal change, and implementing change and making it stick.

Dan Tipney, VetLed Veterinary Human Factors Conference
Dan Tipney, VetLed

As well as online CPD sessions, delegates joined networking and discussions to share their lightbulb moments, thoughts for taking back to practice and resolutions for future development. The conference roundly illuminated the benefit of non-clinical skills – to performance, patient outcomes and the wellbeing of the profession.

Amongst a plethora of world-class speakers and a broad range of compelling topics, all directly applicable to practice as well as on a personal level, it was difficult to pick out only three subjects to focus on, but here are Veterinary Woman’s top three takeaways:

1. Ways to improve health and wellbeing in practice

The integration of wellbeing practice in the workplace was covered in sessions including that of Dr Sonja Olson, a Veterinary Wellness Educator for Blue Pearl Veterinary, whose research has unpicked some of the challenges leading to burnout in vet teams – feelings of hopelessness and difficulties in dealing with work or doing the job effectively; secondary traumatic stress – the negative consequences of fear or work related trauma; and erosion of compassion satisfaction – the pleasure derived from being able to do your work well.

She discussed some of the opportunities practices can take to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff, including utilising a buddy system, integrating wellbeing practices in daily life, providing education and resources available both in practice and virtually, and ensuring there is a culture of support within the organisation and leadership, as well as the team itself.

Jason Spendelow, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Professional Practice at Keele University and Harper Adams University, raised the difficulty with the traditional mental health paradigm, which puts excessive emphasis on individual factors such as ‘low resilience’ and an expectation for the individual to resolve their issues, but insufficient acknowledgement of work context and environmental factors. Inherent stressors in the veterinary profession include workload and work/life balance, interpersonal issues with colleagues or clients, performance and task-related stressors and physical danger.

He set out a more strategic approach to improving health and wellbeing in practice based on an occupational health perspective which optimises the work environment to keep people physically and mentally healthy at work.  This includes training for psychological skills and the view that these are important professional skills with key competencies in self-regulation and coping, interpersonal skills and engagement with self-development. He relayed the importance of recognising that stressors are dynamic and they and an individual’s support needs will change over time. A psychologically healthy workplace, offering a safe working environment, a good work/life fit and an optimised organisational culture are key.

2. Be inspired to positive leadership

Some striking and simple realisations were offered by Josh Vaisman from Flourish Veterinary Consulting as he discussed his research into positive leadership on veterinary teams and discussed the phenomenon of quiet quitting, when individuals perform the minimum requirements of their job and put in no more energy or enthusiasm than absolutely necessary.

He demonstrated how for high performing, committed teams, positive leadership makes a striking difference. Leaders can consider three core factors:

Amplify voice – to feel valued and have confidence in our workplace, we need to believe that our opinions matter to our leaders and that we are listened to. Leaders can encourage engagement by instigating discussion, showing curiosity and acting on feedback from their teams.

Amplify impact – teams need to believe that what they are doing is meaningful, that their work matters, and that they themselves matter. Leaders can focus on showing people why they matter and why what they’re doing matters.

Amplify development – we all have a vested interest in our own development and need to feel that our work is aligned with our personal aims. Leaders can show that they care about their teams’ professional success by asking about employees’ goals and aspirations and working out how they can be supported within the organisation as well as how this can benefit the organisation.

3. Making it stick – compelling communication

Keynote speaker, Dr Chris Turner is an Emergency Medicine Consultant in the NHS, and co-founded the ‘Civility Saves Lives’ campaign, giving two TED Talks and speaking in parliament on the impact of behaviour on performance.

He spoke on communicating about change, and why sound ideas or initiatives may not be accepted by others, illuminating with the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna General Hospital in 1846 who proved that handwashing could dramatically reduce mortality of women giving birth in the maternity unit. Unfortunately, despite undisputable evidence, his innovations were not popular, sparking disgruntlement among doctors who felt he was blaming them for the women’s deaths. After becoming increasingly outspoken, Semmelweis eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum by his colleagues, where he died from an infected wound a couple of weeks later.

This salutary tale poses questions about how our communications are delivered and received, and the behaviours they can provoke. Chris discussed the process of persuasion: taking others on a journey from ignorance to knowledge without pushing them into reactance. Reactance occurs when the persuader is too pushy, causing people to feel their choices are being limited and to actively resist change or strengthen a contrary view or attitude. 

He outlined that to persuade, people’s autonomy must be respected: people don’t like to be told what to do, the requested change must be achievable, and it must be meaningful for them.

There are a number of factors that affect whether a communication may be persuasive:

  • Social proof – we are more likely to do it if others are doing it
  • Likeability – we listen to likeable people
  • Authority – we listen to those we consider credible and authoritative
  • Reciprocity – we are more likely to respond if we are offered something in return, e.g. a gift or offer
  • Congruence – the proposition must be meaningful and aligned with our beliefs
  • Scarcity – we place higher value on something that is rare

Chris also explained that different people will be motivated differently, and will identify individually with our communications. When talking to large groups of people, we need to consider these differences and offer a variety of communication techniques to capture their attention and gain their support. These might include using emotions and telling stories; focusing on the concept and the development of ideas; showing the data and evidence; considering the ethical background to decision making; and illustrating the financial or business considerations.

He also shared a couple of useful questions when approaching someone to propose a change: “What would it take to get you on board with this?” and “Can I get the benefit of your wisdom on this?” Asking people for their input based on their expertise respects their autonomy and authority, and offers real opportunities for collaboration. Asking directly what someone’s requirements are for a proposition allows us to understand their objections and provides a valuable opportunity to gain perspective.

Veterinary Human Factors Conference 2023

The Veterinary Human Factors conference recognises that the veterinary profession faces challenges of culture, leadership, retention, recruitment, enjoyment of work and much more. Understanding and applying the principles of Human Factors is central to stepping forward into a positive future for our profession.

All sessions were recorded and are available for delegates to watch for six months, and post-conference tickets are available. For more information, visit

Help continue the conversation for positive change and let us know what you found most inspiring from this year’s VetLed Veterinary Human Factors Conference in the comments below.

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