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Thom Jenkins with Liz Barton from Veterinary Women·October 8, 2020
Description: Liz and Thom talk about breaking down the health taboos that many working vet team members are living with, and how we as a profession can better support individuals in the workplace.
Thom Jenkins (00:00): Welcome to our second special episode of the petsApp podcast on women's health, as part of PetsApp support for veterinary woman health month. We're joined today by Liz Barton, editor of veterinary woman. Welcome Liz.
Liz Barton (00:22): Hello, thanks for having me.
Thom Jenkins (00:24): Of course. Could we start by hearing a bit about your story? Liz Barton (00:28): Yeah, so I graduated in 2004 and I was continuously employed as a vet for 15 years. Really enjoyed my my veterinary life, but you know, came across the usual stumbling blocks you know, issues around career progression versus caring responsibilities, et cetera. And I just found that a lot of the problems and issues I was having weren't really talked about we just sort of expected to put up and shut up and carry on. And then when I after having my own family I sort of went through a period where I had quite a nice work life balance working part time, bringing up young kids. And I just took a big step back and sort of looked at the profession as a whole. And I just thought there's a lot of unhappiness here I'm not, I don't just want to keep watching the unhappiness develop and grow and not be able to do anything about it.
Liz Barton (01:31): And that for me then started quite a long circuitous journey, developing various resources and discussions and joining with others. So, to basically develop resources,ueverything from co-founding wellvet, which is particularly looking at how we develop our own wellbeing toolkit to,uhelping to restart the vet mom's Facebook group, which is now over 4,000 members sort of having discussions around parenting and the profession,ugetting involved with,uSPVG. Isit on SPVG board as their wellbeing representative. And then most recently that sort of led me to join up with Susan. Who'd founded the veterinary woman websites,uand she's sort of taken me on to edit that and,uand really started developing the conversations around encouraging women to,uprogress in their career journeys. So, yeah, that's sort of how I got involved in
Thom Jenkins (02:34): Brilliant, and there's so much to dig into there, but I just want to start by saying throughout October and into November, Veterinary woman are running a series of events on women's health, what can we look forward to there?
Liz Barton (02:47): Yeah, so Veterinary woman health month came about because I was looking at the sort of national awareness campaigns and they all seem to center around October about the issues to do with women's health. So we've got breast cancer awareness month, ah, there's baby loss awareness week. It's also world menopause day. And then into early November, it's national fertility awareness week. So there's some real touch points there, and as a profession that is predominantly female, especially female of sort of childbearing age, there's a huge impact on a large majority of the workforce, and I don't just mean women. I mean also indirectly men are affected also directly by, you know, men can get breast cancer, for example you know, all genders can be hugely impacted by these very physically and mentally impacting conditions. And we don't talk about them. So, you know, why are we not talking about them more? This is a year which you know, particularly with Anna Johnson, the president, of SPVG's, I've had conversations with her about how he wants to talk more about menopause in order to retain some of the profession in the talent that sorry, talents in the profession that that drops away. Because, you know, it's hard living with these things, especially when we're expected, not, not to talk about them. And therefore there isn't the support there. So
Thom Jenkins (04:25): So some of the issues raised in these events are I think in some ways inherently difficult to talk about like know unimaginable pain of losing a baby, but some we seem to not want to address like the menopause of embarrassment. Is it, or a certain misplaced squeamishness? Why, why do you think that is? And what can we do about it?
Liz Barton (04:49): I think a lot of it's culture you know, historically we've supposed to just get on with it. It's a natural part of being a woman. We place way too much value on stoicism being a martyr to work and just getting on with it. But the danger is, we're pretending to be okay, but in reality, we're dealing with problems, we don't feel able to air and share. Uas soon as we do start talking about them, we start seeing empathy, support, encouragement, and then out of understanding those, you know, the impact we can then start to put in sort of practical measures, both for the individual and, and, you know, within the structures of, practice and life to actually make, make working life easier and more sustainable. So, yeah, I think a lot of it is culture.
Thom Jenkins (05:39): It's interesting. I certainly notice, you know, when my wife was giving birth to our two kids, there's a certain attitude towards women's experience of pain that is slightly dismissive. I remember I had strained a ligament or something in my foot, and I was given painkillers for that. And then there's this sort of maybe stigma around pain relief during childbirth and exploring the options there. Do you think that applies this sort of idea of, you know, suck it up, get on with it applies to women's issues more generally?
Liz Barton (06:17): Yeah, I think that's an interesting point. I mean, a lot of it is our physiology and you know, not just the kind of intensity of, of childbirth, but I actually started looking at women's health issues back in March when it's actually endometriosis awareness month. Because even the monthly cycle can be hugely debilitating for women. You know, you can have paralyzing stomach crumbs on a regular cycle, and that's just something that we're encouraged to just get on with and deal with. And that that's actually very damaging because there is support out there and there are things that can be done to help. And there's a gynecologist that talks about the trickle triple whammy of women's health problems. So you've got the head of the physical health impact. Plus a mental health impacts all compounded by the stigma associated with subjects being too to be so meaning people don't talk and they're less likely to seek medical help as well as peer support. So, you know, we do need to get over that and actually say, if it's impacting us, then, you know, we do, if we talk about it, either to our GP or, you know, within the sort of peer support groups, then we can find ways to mitigate those effects and actually live healthier and happier.
Thom Jenkins (07:41): Interesting. I I've managed veterinary groups with, you know, 300 plus employees, the majority of them women, and I've never had a conversation involving the mention of someone's period or their cycle, but probably that has happened through euphemism. Do you think we need to sort of drop the euphemisms?
Liz Barton (08:02): Yeah, I think plain language always helps. And I think with euphemisms is, you know, there's a, a degree of miscommunication, you know, things can sort of get lost in translation. So I think unless we use plain clear language and this applies across the board, so to all of the sort of cultural issues that we're facing as a profession, you know, we need to speak more plainly. You know, when you think, like you say people didn't sort of talk about their cycles or, you know, for example all women at some stage will be affected by menopause and 75% of those will experience unwelcome symptoms and in a quarter, the symptoms are severe. So we're talking about an impact, you know, in over half of the veterinary population with symptoms lasting for on average four to eight years and a quarter of women consider leaving work as a result of being unable to cope with their symptoms. Now, if we're talking about those symptoms and where, you know, facilitating sort of rest breaks and helping people to stay in the workplace, even when they're experiencing those difficulties and you were normalizing, encouraging people to speak to their GP and seeking medical help, you know, I'm sure those figures will go down, but at the moment it's all sort of covered up. So people are suffering in silence. Thom Jenkins (09:25): How do we help a clumsy man, such as myself, that isn't educated around this stuff that isn't used to having these kinds of conversations, how do we help them sort of address this stuff where appropriate and address it appropriately?
Liz Barton (09:43): So I think there's a few things there. The key is initially raising awareness. So part of the, the whole point of women's health month is, is to raise the awareness of, of just quite how great the impact is. And also understanding the specifics. So for example the vet minds group, which Matt started or, you know, co-founded that's a discussion group where they're talking about the impact of miscarriage and fertility neonatal death and stillbirth, and there are consistent themes which come out of that. So for example, somebody that's experienced baby loss, having to go back to work and deal with demanding breeders, particularly, you know, C-sections, pregnancy scans, even end of life discussions when they're silently suffering their own grief and loss presents particular challenges, and just being aware that those things are being experienced, you know, as a, as a, as a Boss as a as an employer sort of saying, well, let's make sure that, you know, we don't give, give this person C sections and annoying breeders for the next couple of months.
Liz Barton (10:58): So the first thing is, is understanding and raising awareness of where those, those touch points are that that particularly affects people and then communication, you know, so one of the vet minds members I'm just quoting here since it's something I think is very common, is for the emotions to wax and wane for some time. And some days you feel quite robust and over it on other days you feel really rubbish, tearful with low self esteem, having your colleagues empathize and help you through those tougher days makes it possible to get back to enjoying the job again. And I think we've shied away from communication and talking about it because we haven't understood the impact. So raising awareness of the people affected understanding, you know, where those, those difficulties lie, and then just being brave enough to, to open the conversations with a lot of mental and physical health issues. It's about saying, Oh, are you okay? And just keep saying, Oh, are you okay? We don't have to have the answers on the solutions, but just starting that conversation. And, and having that empathy is so, so important.
Thom Jenkins (12:08): Yeah, I think that was the most powerful thing for me. The key takeaway in that score is recent baby loss article was awareness of the triggers in day to day event, new practice that, that exists for people. And I think it's something that just honestly, candidly, I'd given almost zero thought to. And so, yeah, just, just, just having the conversation triggers it. Cause I think people want to be supportive, you know, in the Maine people want to be there and do the right thing, but awareness is so important.
Liz Barton (12:38): Absolutely. And, you know, there's there's so many of these these health issues, which, you know, there's, there's kind of positive and negative triggers and that, you know, the classic you know, for example, within fertility one in eight couples would experience fertility problems. And I'm talking about men here as well, you know, so for those men in practice that are struggling with fertility problems and, and for, for women affected as well you know, just that the conversations that occur around or when you starting a family and well-meaning clients asking et cetera, whereas people are sort of carrying this. It's really difficult. You know, ongoing health issue, that's sort of impacting their, their future family planning and, and their career planning and, you know, really the whole rest of their lives. You know, it's, it's very difficult to know how to be sensitive about that, particularly when other members of the practice are announcing pregnancies, et cetera. But you know, we, we need to understand how we can help and support those people and just be a bit more sensitive. You know, I don't have all the answers at all and that's partly why I'm starting these conversations, you know, for my own understanding and an empathy to grow.
Thom Jenkins (14:01): Yeah. And in terms of empathy, it's important to realize that everyone experiences these things in different ways. And I think it it's awareness around that we're all individuals and we have our own ways of experiencing things in dealing with things. And we are talking in a country where we have this culture of the stiff upper lip. And for some people that's, that works and maybe that's their coping mechanism. How do we have these conversations without being judgemental and the reverse, you know, making someone feel uncomfortable that they're not experiencing it in that same way?
Liz Barton (14:38): I think I grew up in a time, you know, really stiff upper lip. Particularly my father. We didn't talk about any health issues at all, but also my mom didn't go into a huge amount of detail you know, from, from puberty onwards. And yeah, I could see her struggling for example, with menopause, but I just have no real understanding of, of what it was. But the more we encourage people to talk about it, the more we do shift that culture. And it isn't, you know, we are unused to talking about it. It can be a bit embarrassing. However, what's been clearly shown through the vet mom's group and the vet mine's group is actually, as soon as you start that conversation and a couple of people open up, then it sort of opens the flood Gates of, Oh my goodness, this is okay to talk about.
Liz Barton (15:30): It's been hugely impacting me. I'm not the only one. I'm not soft, I'm not rubbish. And I think a lot of the confidence to speak up and to make it okay to speak up is how we receive that. So, you know, if somebody is, is asked and then, you know, they sort of say, actually I am struggling if that's their receive well, you know, let's, let's do something about it. What can we do to help you then it makes it okay. And it encourages that further conversation. If we don't ask and people don't say, or if they even worse, if they do say, and it sort of met with her a bit of a prudishness in a while, just, just get on with it, everybody else has. And then that's when it really shuts the door and you know, prevents that, that progress, which will ultimately help people to, as I say, stay in the, stay in the profession and live, have happier working lives
Thom Jenkins (16:23): Just about awareness. Then it's also about permission.
Liz Barton (16:27): Absolutely. permission is key. And as a, as a mum to young girls, you know, I'm, I'm struggling, I'll be honest, but, you know, I know I need to teach my daughters not to be afraid of understanding and checking their bodies and that it's not dirty. And it's important for them to be less to do an orange tune with their physical and mental health. And I was growing up you know, I love this quote from Michelle Obama, you know, our, our power as women, our voice comes from our ability to value our health and the vessel we existed. What a woman's body is going through is important information. It needs to take up space in society because it's affecting us and we're living like it's not happening. You know, we need to just grow up as individuals, as professionals as, as as an industry and, and have these conversations because by doing that, we are, as I say, you know, helping people and it's all about the people at the end of the day.
Thom Jenkins (17:28): Yeah. I, I can feel it even in our conversation Liz, for me, there's a certain tentativeness where you just don't want to say the wrong thing. And I think taking the risk of, you know saying the wrong thing, and as long as that person knows that it's coming from a place of empathy and compassion um, you know, there's a, there's a need for understanding on both sides, I suppose.
Liz Barton (17:53): Absolutely. And I don't think there's anything wrong at all with saying to some of the day that you, you know, either know is affected or you think may be affected to actually say, look, I'm not sure if I'm going to say the wrong thing here, and please tell me if this isn't helpful, but if you are finding this difficult, what can we do to help? You know, do you want to talk about it? Do you want to have an afternoon off to speak to your GP? You know, we, we could be doing better for you. And please talk to me and let me know how to do that. I don't think you have to say too much. I think just opening the conversation, opening that door and, and letting that person lead it, to be honest for me, I find it similar to talking about mental health.
Liz Barton (18:37): I feel very awkward asking people how they are, because I sort of feel all, what if they, what if they say something and I haven't got the answers, the truth is we don't have to have the answers. It's not down to us to fix it. It's down to us to open the door to them talking, and then to suggest, you know, pointing them in the right direction, that life a fantastic you know, both for mental health and, and issues impacting mental health, including health problems. So, you know, we don't have to have all the answers. We don't have to be fearful of saying the right thing. We just have to be open and encourage conversation. And
Thom Jenkins (19:16): Yeah, that's really useful advice actually, on our last episode on the podcast, we had Anna Beber on and talking about the vet your breasts campaign, and it struck me how there can be relatively simple solutions that have powerful outcomes. Anna was talking about how she saw a breast cancer poster in the gym that led to her examining her own breasts and getting the treatment she needed. It doesn't take a massive change to make a big difference.
Liz Barton (19:52): So part of being a mom to two young girls, as I was saying, is encouraging them to do things like check their breasts. I mean, I was astounded when I looked at Anna Beber's, but your breasts campaign at the number of people affected the fact that one woman is diagnosed with breast breast cancer, every 10 minutes in the UK and 400 men every year. I mean, it's just staggering. And even reading her posters has encouraged me to check my body more regularly and making that normal and making that okay. And actually facilitating that within veterinary practice, by having the posters on the wall, it's such a simple, elegant solution. I'm sure there are lots of individuals out there who have these solutions, and if we make these kinds of conversations normal, then hopefully more simple elegant solutions will come out of it.
Thom Jenkins (20:44): Yeah. I mean, when I was talking to Ana on the podcast I think she mentioned one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. So I think it would be hard to find an issue that is more relevant to people in our profession, not just those that are diagnosed themselves, but as someone that's had family members go through through that, it can, can be a harrowing experience even when it's not happening to you personally.
Liz Barton (21:09): Absolutely. And actually, if you look at all of these health issues, you know, that the statistics are all sort of one in eight, one in four, you know, 75%, the impacts are enormous. And there's increasing data from other industries looking at the socio economic impact of all of these health issues individually and together, and the impact both on things like financial losses in, in business practice. But also their sort of attrition rate from career progression is just huge. And we could and should be doing more for so many reasons.
Thom Jenkins (21:49): I like that appeal to pragmatism that there are real sort of commercial reasons to give ourselves access to best and broadest possible pool of talent. And once we have access to that pool of talent, keep them as healthy as possible. You know, even if you just put aside, it's the right thing to do. There are commercial drivers there too.
Liz Barton (22:13): We're waking up to that in terms of mental health, a lot more as a profession, we're recognizing that if we treat our people better, they perform better, they stay longer. And there are huge economic outputs and benefits as well as the very moral and you know, individual benefits. I think we're starting to have that conversation now about physical health to booze that we've just covered up because as I say, that they're part of a woman's physiology and she should just get on with it. You know, that should not be the case we need to do better.
Thom Jenkins (22:53): Well, it's, it's a powerful message Liz, I'm so grateful for you coming onto our podcast and sharing your thoughts. I hope that this conversation encourages more conversations and gives the awareness and the permission for those to happen. But before I let you go, Liz I do just want to hear from you where people can learn more about veterinary woman and veterinary woman health month.
Liz Barton (23:17): Yeah. So our website is www.veterinarywomen.co.uk, and all the links to the health month or on there. And there's lots of other content around leadership and career and role model stories, et cetera. I would encourage people to get involved in the survey that we're running with SPVG around both awareness and impact of menopause and that's for everybody to fill in, not just people affected. And obviously you can follow us on social media. We've got Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, All Veterinary Woman
Thom Jenkins (23:50): Brilliant. Thanks again. Liz.
Liz Barton (23:52): Thanks so much for having me Thom.
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