I’ve worked in academia and in private practice both in the UK and abroad. Is there more bullying and negative behaviour in academia? I don’t know, but what I can say, is that based on my experiences, it certainly feels so.
One would hope that academia would be full of like-minded professionals, keen to advance the boundaries of veterinary medicine. Unfortunately, the reality can be one of an environment tarnished by interpersonal disagreement, professional rivalry and immense stress and loneliness. Behaviour that would not be tolerated in private practice seems rife in the university setting.
I have witnessed bullying, some of which was extreme, go unreported, or worse still, be ignored by heads of department and by human resource staff. Have I been guilty of turning a blind eye to such negative behaviour? Unfortunately, I have. I’ve fallen into the “Be nice Paradox” and smiled, gritted my teeth and walked away, trying to be the grey man, to blend into the background, to avoid being the next victim and to stay out of trouble. Do I regret this? Every day. Never more so than when I look at my children and I feel like a hypocrite telling them to always stand up to bullies….something I have failed to do.
It is easy to start out as idealistic, but it only takes a couple of failed attempts of seeking help for people to simply stop trying and to ignore the problem. I once tried to discuss an issue with a head of department to be told that if I took the matter further he would “make life very difficult” for me. Is it any wonder that we have problems when we have with attitudes like this from leaders? As vets, we seem used to just getting on with things and never want to trouble others with our problems for fear of looking weak. Surely, when a problem becomes bad enough that it is reported, it should be taken seriously?
In a profession diseased with high rate of depression, burn out and suicide, we really need to be mindful and to watch out for our colleagues. I am so tired of seeing friends and colleagues either burn out and become disillusioned with the profession after years of bullying or those who perpetuate the problem and become the bully that they once despised.
In my experience, the people who tend to survive in such a toxic environment are those who take a back seat from the office politics and get on with their job as an individual as much as possible. Certainly, this can improve quality of life for the individual, but is this really the way we should be working? Shouldn’t we be tapping into the potential of teamwork to give the best quality of care to our patients, while pushing the boundaries of research and clinical expertise?
Is it as bad as it sounds? It can be, but as with any job in our field, there are some wonderful colleagues out there. Certainly, I have had the privilege of working with some outstanding members of the profession and some of my closest, most treasured of friendships have been made at work. Indeed, it is often easier to socialise with colleagues as they are the very people who never mind when dinner reservations are delayed or cancelled because of a blocked cat or a GDV and they are the people who will truly understand when you need to offload the stresses of a difficult surgery or euthanasia. To be so bold as to paraphrase Dickens, it can be the worst of times, but it can also be the best of times. We are after all a profession of caring people who just want to please people and improve quality of life of animals.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to simply be nice and instead try to be brave, to promote a zero tolerance approach to bullying, to stand up to bullies and to lead by example.