Veterinary Work-Life Balance – Making The Myth A Reality
As if finding work-life balance wasn’t difficult enough, enter the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has affected every aspect of life; from the ability to visit with loved ones, to how we grocery shop, to the way we conduct our work. Unlike other professions that were able to adapt to remote work, veterinarians continue to serve pets and their communities in person.
Your practice has assuredly experienced the same influx of new patients, sick visits, and emergencies that have inundated clinics globally since the pandemic began. Emergency and referral clinics are over capacity with long wait times and packed schedules for months out; clients call daily trying to fit into appointment schedules bursting at the seams, and that drive home seems to be getting later and later each evening. The mystery of how a pandemic resulted in a market over-saturated with pets remains, but here we are.
Veterinary professionals are naturally extra type-A empathetic individuals, aspiring to make life better for both pets and pet parents by providing excellent care. This selfless ambition and bend toward perfectionism can result in a worsening struggle with work-life balance; throw in the pandemic, and it can feel as if you’re trying to straighten a pug’s tail.
Yes, achieving a work-life balance that allows you to thrive is every veterinary professional’s goal, but many don’t notice that things are off-kilter until it is nearly too late. So, it’s time for an Intervention. We approached veterinarians, veterinary nurses, veterinary technicians, and hospital managers from our global community for their advice and their practical, tactical tips to get you started on re-establishing your own work-life balance. Here are 7 practical tips…
When it comes to balance, you have been sold a bill of goods. It’s time to give yourself a break, embrace the life you have, and make adjustments that will allow you to grow in the areas that are crucial to your most important commitments as well as your happiness – Dan Thurmon
Dedicating your life to the wellbeing of pets automatically eliminates the option of a “traditional 9-5” workweek. As you’re well familiar, it’s not uncommon for veterinary professionals to regularly put in a full 10–12-hour day. Whether it’s completing patient records from that morning, calling a client to check on a patient you saw days earlier or performing one last quality check in preparation for surgery, there is always one more thing to do. Juggling all these varied tasks can eat away at the morale and the overall mental health of veterinarians and veterinary support team members alike.
Then, when you’re finally away from the practice, you get to spend some time with friends and family. That’s when it happens, someone grabs your attention and leads with, “I have a question about my dog…”. Or you may be at home enjoying some alone time and your phone rings, a text message comes in, social media notifications ping your screen with someone seeking advice (usually from someone horrified their dog may die from eating something off the floor). It’s just not in us to ignore such questions and so you provide helpful guidance, regardless of the impact on personal time. Sound familiar?
It’s okay to work late, once in a while; and it’s okay to help friends and family with their pet-related questions. What’s not okay, is doing those things ALL the time. We need to establish boundaries. Establish how late you want to stay at work and stick to that schedule. No more fourteen-hour shifts, no more “I just need to finish one more thing before I go.” No more allowing clients to creep on your closing time. Much of the work you are doing can wait another day. If you are too inundated with clients, speak to your Practice Manager or Hospital Owner about adjusting schedules. Discuss with them how cutting back on patient visits by one or two will benefit the practice in the long run. Veterinarians, nurses, managers alike will be more rested leading to greater productivity. If you are the owner, think about bringing in a locum or part-time doctor, or even hiring a new associate. Let your friends know that you are not free for advice Friday through Sunday night, barring a real emergency.
Many veterinarians will say they are happy to help and don’t mind the intrusion. That’s generally true, but as we all know, the more you chip away at something the quicker it will fall apart. As a pet care professional, you love what you do, and you should. Your work is very important. It provides comfort to animals and humans alike, but that doesn’t mean you should stop caring for yourself. It may be hard to establish boundaries, but research shows boundaries decrease stress and increase productivity. Steps to help establish work boundaries include prioritizing your values, communicating boundaries clearly, and being ready to address any boundary violations.
Make Use of Your Smart Phone’s Smarts
There is significantly more technology in the phone in your hand than the amount first used to put mankind on the moon. Technology was originally intended to make our lives easier, but it seems to make it more complicated. We are constantly inundated with information and notifications, which is proven to be addicting but is also adding to stress and discontent.
Learn how to control and manage your smartphone notifications from your tech-savvy niece, or from a YouTube video…or from your tech-savvy niece showing you how to get to a YouTube video. Consider programming your phone to switch off all email and text notifications outside a designated “work window”. Only allow texts and social media contacts from a small circle of close friends (perhaps those who don’t have a pet…just kidding…also impossible). One of the easiest ways to help you start establishing those boundaries mentioned above is to use your phone’s alarm. Set an alarm for 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after the end of your scheduled shift. When the first goes off, start planning your exit. When the second goes off, if you are still at work, GO HOME…but if you are already on your way home, you can take a moment to savor your first steps towards genuine work-life balance.
Besides being a veterinary professional, what else do you love to do? Find time to read a little each day, paint, draw, hike, or watch a movie. “Me time” might sound selfish initially but will reward you with peace of mind in the long term and lead to better care for your patients and a better work environment for your associates as a result. It is now well known, and generally more accepted, that people need time to decompress and re-focus. Connect with the things that fill your soul for just a little each day. This will look different for everyone. Some people reset by reading a book while listening to classical music while others head to the gym to beat the daylights out of a sandbag and flip massive tires.
Learn to meditate – it really does help. Even something as simple as a walk while simply focusing on breathing and the world around you is enough to clear your mind. And your beastly, life-interrupting phone can truly help as well with apps for planning “me time”, meditation, and mindfulness.
Most importantly, if you can’t think of something you enjoy outside of Veterinary medicine, then start trying new things! If Veterinary medicine is all you have, then you run a huge risk of becoming burnt out. This is a small community, and we all know people who appeared happy and in the “prime” of their career, only to see them leave us far too soon. You need something for you outside of this profession of self-sacrifice.
Have a good laugh
Bad days at the clinic do happen. You can cut back the stress and pain of those days with a good laugh. Find a comedy podcast to play in the treatment room. Find a book of jokes and randomly recite one to the team. Go see a stand-up comedian. Throw on an episode of your favorite sitcom (The Office anyone?) and feel the day melt away. Then there’s always getting together with that one friend who always keeps you smiling. In today’s hyper-connected world there are even pages and pages of memes and gifs to help pick you up when having a rough day (if “meme” and “gif” are foreign to you…go find that tech-savvy niece). As they say, “laughter is the best medicine.”
Take your lunch outside
How often can you actually remember eating lunch at work? Every day thousands of veterinarians, nurses, and technicians devour their sandwiches and salads in between patients, whilst swapping out bandages, just before prepping for surgery, or even after dealing with abscessed anal glands (your iron stomachs know no bounds). You scarf down your food without even taking a breath to enjoy what you are doing. Stop that. You need to take a break; lunch is a perfect conduit for that. You need to take thirty minutes or an hour to reset and breathe. Adding in a fifteen-minute walk around the block could be exactly what you need to get your head back in the game. Most veterinary hospitals lack natural light, and many veterinary professionals come in as the sun rises and go home after it’s set. Sunlight has proven benefits for mood, sleep, and of course, vitamin D. Take advantage of one of the most natural health supplements out there!
Book a holiday
While some of your most dedicated clients may disagree, believe it or not, you are not irreplaceable, and your hospital will survive without you being there for a week or three. Your hospital will have less chance of surviving, however, if you end up leaving through exhaustion, stress, or even self-harm…we’ve all heard the statistics. Choose a location you have always dreamed about and find a friend or life partner to travel with. Book it and prepay 100% of the cost with no cancellation policy so that you have no other option but to go. By taking a travel buddy and parting with your money in advance, it will make it really, really hard to cancel. Once on that coveted and precious vacation, make sure others know not to contact you unless it’s an emergency! No calls from clients, no questions about patient treatments, no veterinary work! Life is short and the world is vast, it’s time to explore it a little.
Learn to say No
Having highlighted some work-life balance tips and techniques earlier, we left the most important one to the end. You must learn to say “No.” Veterinary professionals by nature want to help in any way possible and never disappoint. Regrettably, that also puts you in a position that others take advantage of or exposes you to fatigue and over-work. If you’re invited to your second cousin’s 30th birthday party that is after 4 long-day shifts it is OK to say no. Same as when that college roommate asks for your help in studying for their advanced surgery qualification, or those more and more frequent last-minute calls to pick up an extra shift. That doesn’t mean that you have to say no always – but start with once a week and work up to a level you are happy with. No?
Reconsider the Term
We said there would be seven tips, and there are seven practical tips listed above. Consider this an overarching approach to the concept of work-life balance. Rethink the term “work-life balance” entirely. Purely by nature, the term “balance” places two things in opposition, and your brain immediately pictures a scale. The reality is that work is a part of your life, and you cannot balance a part against the whole. By saying we need more work-life balance we are inherently suggesting that life happens apart from work. Instead, we should consider how the work part of our lives balances out with the other parts: family, hobbies, sleep, etc. The term “work-life balance” is here to stay, and we all know what is generally meant by the phrase, but sometimes just thinking about it from a different angle can help. You need to balance work with the other components of life, don’t start to think work is getting in the way of your life.
Now is the time for you to become a master of your veterinary work-life balance. It won’t be easy (but neither is doing what you do at work every day), and you’ll have many setbacks. But, in the end, it’s critical that you set boundaries to maintain your passion for the industry you’re so dedicated to.
The veterinary community needs you, not only to provide great veterinary care but also to nurture and mentor the next generation of veterinarians, vet nurses, and practice managers. To accomplish this, you must consider your own sanity and well-being. It’s time for some self-applied tough love…and to make time to love yourself by finding some all-too-elusive “work-life balance.” The common denominator to the care of those you interact with daily is…you. Ultimately, the pursuit of work-life balance will serve the greater benefit for you, your co-workers, your clients, and your patients.
- How to Set Clear Work Boundaries – 14 January 2021 https://ideas.ted.com/how-to-set-clear-work-boundaries-jayne-hardy/ – As viewed on 1 November 2021
- Work-life Balance: Tips to Reclaim Control – 25 August 2020 https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/work-life-balance/art-20048134#:~:text=Consider%20these%20strategies%3A%201%20Manage%20your%20time.%20Give,workweek%2C%20job%20sharing%20or%20other%20scheduling%20flexibility.%20 – As viewed on 1 November 2021
- Self-care: 4 Ways to Nourish Body and Soul – 16 November 2017 https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/self-care-4-ways-nourish-body-soul-2017111612736 – As viewed on 1 November 2021
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