Can we talk about lunch for a moment? I know, I know: “Ha! What’s that!?” Lunch – or its lack thereof – is treated as some sort of insolvable problem in veterinary medicine: “That’s just the way the work is”, “Animals don’t get sick to schedule.”
There are busy and stressful days in clinical work, but it shouldn’t be the norm to approach these without a clear head, fueled by food and breaks. We laugh or shrug ruefully when anyone mentions lunch, and then – in the next breath – wonder why we struggle with mental health in veterinary work.
As a veterinary communication and resilience trainer, I see the hidden costs of having a clinic work-stream which fails to consider staff wellbeing. Employers come to me asking for advice, and I listen patiently as I hear: “You can’t get the staff these days” or “We have a new associate and she can’t cope with the stress.”
I hear tales of high staff turnover, and complaints of poor client skills. And I’ll ask the speaker: “What’s your policy on lunch?” Cue a confused look – most people look like I’ve just started speaking in fluent Mandarin. I’ll explain that although lunch isn’t the only factor involved in employee wellbeing, it’s a really good starting point.
So, let me ask you this: How often did you get lunch in the last month? To be clear, I’m going to define this as:
- A meal/packed lunch with at least three food groups
- A place to sit down
- 15 minutes of uninterrupted time (i.e. no requirements to think/ listen/ make decisions related to work)
Is it common for you to get this time? Did you answer “never” or “rarely”? If you’re an employer, how often do your staff sit down and eat? Let’s park for the moment that it’s just “nice” to feel fed, to remove hunger. There are also reasons why it’s simply good practice policy. Consider some of these points from the literature:
- Low glucose levels affect our self-control resources
- Low glucose levels can lead to physiological fatigue, decreasing our ability to listen
- Prolonged periods without food have been linked to decreased cognitive function
- Prolonged periods without food can reduce our ability to behave within socially acceptable norms
- Prolonged periods without food has been linked to increased visits to the human ER
A habitual absence of lunch is thus not just something to “suck up”, it sets the clinic staff up to make mistakes, struggle with communication, and increases the chances that they’ll tell a client or colleague to “Take a hike!”.
Veterinary staff will take lunch if they are given the time and can see that it is the norm in the clinic. So my message is to veterinary employers, those in charge of the rota and managing the workflow: Let them eat lunch! If your clinic website promises “compassion”, “excellent customer service”, or “highest quality practice”, then you need to let your staff eat lunch.
What does that look like in real life?
- If lunch is not “the done thing” in your clinic, you’ll need to address the culture. If you have a lead role in the clinic, then role modelling works – so have lunch, and others will follow.
- Enlist the team to make it work. Brainstorm ideas to get those 15 minutes into the schedule. Some clinics block off appointments, create a mini “on-call” system at lunchtime, or reschedule clients when days get slammed.
- Wellbeing experts recommend that teams take lunch together where possible. Spending time together (but keeping work issues out of the conversation) can build staff resilience. A designated “quiet corner” in the staff room is useful for those times when individuals don’t want to chat.
- Make lunch a team task. Each individual has a responsibility to make time for lunch, but also to support others. If you’re getting to 2pm, 3pm and you notice someone hasn’t had a break, step in to help them do this. It’s just four words: “Have you eaten yet?”
- Be cautious about lunchtime practice meetings or training sessions. “Lunch and learn” works well for some, but work psychology tells us that individuals manage their energy in unique ways. A 45-minute meeting often works just as well as one that’s an hour long, but also allows time alone to recharge for afternoon consults for those that need it.
If you’re finding yourself challenged by this idea of lunch, or wondering if I’m making too big a deal about it, consider this: Do you like your airline pilots to be well rested? Would you prefer that your surgeon or your child’s paediatrician has eaten in the last eight hours? It’s a culture shift, and we are launching a repast revolution: Let them eat lunch!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
About the Author
Jenny Moffett is a veterinarian, communication trainer and life coach all rolled into one. She is MD of the personal and professional development company SkillsTree, and lives near the second-best leprechaun museum in Ireland.