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Workplace Bullying: Coping Strategies for Vet Students

Posted by Cathy Barnette on Jun 17, 2019 8:00:00 AM
Cathy Barnette
Cathy Barnette is a practicing small animal veterinarian, freelance writer, and contributor to XPrep Learning Solutions. She is passionate about both veterinary medicine and education, working to provide helpful information to veterinary teams and the general public. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature with her family and leading a Girl Scout troop.

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A 2017 study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 19% of Americans have experienced bullying at work.(1) While you may think of bullying as something that only affects school-age kids, the reality is that this behavior can continue throughout adulthood. In the workplace, this bullying is often characterized by “repeated mistreatment” or “abusive contact” and can be associated with supervisors or coworkers.

Unfortunately, veterinary practices are not immune to bullying and this behavior can affect both vets and vet students. In fact, bullying appears to occur with above-average frequency in veterinary clinics and other medical settings!

Studies in human medicine have shown the following:(2)

88% of nurses experience cliques and gossip at work
55% of nurses have a teammate who tries to make others look bad in order to boost their own image at work
77% of nurses have coworkers who are rude, condescending, or insulting
33% of nurses have witnessed verbal abuse from their coworkers, including yelling, cursing, and calling names

I can attest to experiencing every single one of the above behaviors during my 13 years as a practicing vet (to varying degrees). Although workplace bullying often comes from a senior member of the veterinary team, such as a practice owner or a lead technician, it can occur under a variety of circumstances and can come from any member of the veterinary team.

Workplace bullying is a reality of life and it is important that you be prepared to identify it and handle it appropriately.

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If you find yourself working with a bully, what are your options?

1. Report the bully to your employer

tim-gouw-79563-unsplashThis is probably the most obvious option. Unfortunately, as a new grad, you may not always be in a position to do so comfortably. If you are being bullied by the practice owner, there may not be someone to whom you can report the bullying. If you are being bullied by a lead tech that has a longer history with the practice than you do, your employer may be inclined to trust the technician’s word over your own.

Unfortunately, a lack of response by your employer is common. Approximately 80% of employees report that their employer does not do anything to address workplace bullying and 71% report employer responses that actually harm the victim, not the bully.(3) Think about building an emergency fund and having a backup plan if you expect the conversation to go poorly, but reporting is still worth a try! Best case scenario, your employer puts a stop to the bullying. Worst case scenario, you know that you gave it your best effort.

2. Focus on actions that YOU can take at work

confrontIn some cases, it can be helpful to draw the bully’s attention to their behavior.(3) Describe exactly what they are doing in clear, factual, unemotional language. Tell the bully how their actions are impacting your work and make it clear that you will not tolerate this behavior in the future. If they ignore your request, confront them about doing so. With some bullies, this may be enough to convince them to back off a bit.  

If not, move on to documenting each and every incident. This information can be invaluable in conversations with your employer. Additionally, if reporting leads to the loss of your job, this information could prove useful in pursuing unemployment or other legal action. If your bully is bullying other coworkers, ask these individuals to also document interactions.

3. Look for a new job

glenn-carstens-peters-203007-unsplashIf your employer refuses to address the issue and your bully is unwilling to change, you have a choice to make. Will you stay in the job and tolerate bullying, or will you leave in search of a better work environment?

While many new grads worry about leaving their first job after a short period of time, the truth is that many vets change jobs a couple of times in their first few years out of school before finding the right long-term fit. While you might worry about the effects of a job change on your resume, consider the more significant effects that an abusive workplace can have on your mental health! Approximately 40% of workplace bullying victims experience stress-related health problems.(3) Given the mental health challenges that are already inherent in the veterinary profession, it’s important not to remain in an abusive work environment any longer than necessary.

If you find yourself working with a bully, know that you are not alone and you are not at fault. Evaluate your options carefully, creating a plan that is beneficial for your personal mental health as well as for your overall career development.


  1. Workplace Bullying Institute. 2017 WBI U.S. Survey: National Prevalence, 60.3 Million Workers Affected by Workplace Bullying. 
  2. Lee, J. 2013. Bullying and Aggression in the Veterinary Profession. Veterinary Team Brief.
  3. Heathfield, S. 2018. How to Deal with a Bully at Work. The Balance Careers.

Topics: workplace

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