Culture Change blog

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by Catherine Oxtoby, Risk Manager, The Veterinary Defence Society

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit behind with the news, but I was listening to the radio the other day and the ex-Australian prime minister was being interviewed about her new role as an international educator. Turns out she is also a YouTube sensation for a speech she delivered while still in power when she, as the radio interviewer put it, ‘lost it’ with the leader of the opposition when he accused her of sexism.

So I looked it up. It was amazing. I wish that I had her control. When I get angry in a meeting I feel the flush start up my neck and I try not to stammer as my mind fills with white noise and drowns out coherent thoughts, the inconvenient psychological reaction to the stress of my situation. Julia Gillard was quite obviously incandescently angry, spitting fury and justly, utterly aggrieved. You got the feeling she’d buried those feeling deep throughout her term of office but she now she argued her point with an eloquence and clarity which silenced the catcalls and jibes of her opponents. And she didn’t even go red.

She also, while providing a masterclass in how to keep your cool under pressure, did a quite amazing thing. In the space of 2.3 minutes, she put Culture Change on the table. By publicly, eloquently, sanely stating pure and simple, that there was a problem with sexism in Australian politics, and that she herself had been a victim of it, she started the conversation. No dancing around the edges. No euphemistic expressions, no shrugging of shoulders and apologetic smiles because, well, that’s just the way it’s always been. No brushing it under the mat because how exactly do you deal with that? She stood up, stuck her political neck out and laid it unequivocally on the table.

I have had conversations with colleagues for whom I have the utmost respect, who deny the existence of a blame and shame culture in our profession. I respectfully disagree. While it may not mean the same to vets as the long-established concept means to medics, I think clinical mistakes by vets and nurses carry a stigma of failure, which manifests as self-criticism, fear and a tendency to bury our errors rather than learn from them. Most people (but not everyone) will acknowledge we all make mistakes. Most people are afraid to talk about them. We are frightened of the RCVS, our clients, our bosses, our peers and our own self-criticism.  We blame ourselves and our colleagues for not being perfect and feel ashamed that our professionalism is called into question. We just don’t talk about it.

So I’m sticking my neck out and saying that this is an issue for the veterinary profession. That fear of professional mistakes and the distress attached to them is a big problem which contributes to poor mental wellbeing, a quiet erosion of clinical confidence and a bunch of second victims who need support. Let’s put it on the table, take off the lid, start the conversation and find out what we need to do to change a culture.


For more information about Catherine Oxtoby and the session she is speaking in at this year's VET Festival click here.




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