A career in the veterinary sphere can be one of the most fulfilling: when friends from other sectors (e.g. banking) see practice with me, they often comment that my work “makes a difference”, while sometimes their own workplace seems comparatively meaningless. Most of us know this already: that’s part of the reason why a veterinary or veterinary nursing career is so popular.
So in the short term, there’s no doubt that our jobs are rewarding and interesting. The big challenge in the long term is that “compassion fatigue” can develop, with a serious risk of career burn out. Affected individuals find it difficult to maintain their previous energy and enthusiasm about work. It’s sad, but common, to see a level of disillusionment and lack of interest in previously committed, dedicated, deeply engaged vets and vet nurses. So what can be done to prevent burn out?
1. Pre-emptive action.
When you’re young and new to the job, it’s common to feel that you want to spend every waking moment dedicated to your career. You enjoy the long working days of twelve hours or more, you love reading about the latest techniques and medications before going to sleep at night, and you don’t feel that you need your allotted holiday breaks.
These early days are a time to be objective, and to listen to the advice of people who have been there before you. You need to understand that it is almost impossible to maintain such a high level of energy and focus indefinitely. You need to take a long view, realising that if you genuinely want to care for your patients in a sustainable way, you have to look after yourself, rationing the part of your life that is spent at work.
2. The wheel of life
A simple way of analysing your self-care is to create a pie chart known as the “wheel of life”. The pie is broken down into eight sections, representing:
Personal development/ religion
Fun and recreation
Family and friends
Love and romance
Health and fitness
You need to review your life, making sure that you achieve balance by paying due attention to each of these eight segments.
3. Scheduling your time
When you’re working in a busy vet practice, it can be difficult to allocate enough time to each segment of the wheel of life: the busy-ness of the day takes over. To help deal with this, write down a schedule, accounting for every hour of every day, in the same way as appointments are made for you when consulting. When you write the schedule, ensure that you create slots for each part of your balanced life. Then if someone asks you to do something different during this slot, your simple answer can be that you are already busy. You need to take life balance as seriously as “work”: it’s a necessity, not an option.
4. Think about what you love doing and spend time doing it
Answer two questions:
How would you spend your time if money didn’t matter, and you could do exactly what you want?
What would your ultimate life goal be, if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Then ask yourself what you are doing to take yourself nearer these two answers. Whatever you put your energy into grows: if you don’t work towards achieving what you want, it will never happen. We all tend to be focussed on earning a living, whereas the truth is that it often works out well if we take a different approach, following the maxim: “Do what you love and the money will follow”.
It may be if you are lucky, that you are already spending your time doing exactly what you want to do, but if not, think about how you can realign your life so that you move closer towards this ideal. This may mean spending time focussed on a particular part of your veterinary career (e.g. orthopaedics) or it could involve doing a hobby that may eventually be able to be fee earning (such as art or even writing for the veterinary industry).
5. Engage with a life coach
It can be difficult to be objective about your own life: we are too close to ourselves to see us as others may see us. Regular sessions with a third party – such as a life coach – can help us to keep the balance and focus right in our lives. If you can’t afford a professional life coach, you may have a friend who can engage with you regularly to talk to you about your goals, and the steps you’re taking to achieve them. You may then be able to act as a life coach for them in return. The discipline of regularly reporting to a third party can be enough to ensure that we follow through on our intentions to live a balanced life focussed on doing what we want to do.
The key to avoiding burn out is taking pre-emptive action. Start with a broad review of your life, as above. It isn’t difficult to adjust your schedule towards a balanced routine, and it can make all the difference in the long run. A happy lifestyle, means a happy work ethic. Most of us veterinary professionals absolutely love the work that we do, and the aim is to make sure that we continue to love it, into the long term. So, to get the very best from yourself within your career, try following some of the simple steps above and see what difference you can make.
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Dr Pete Wedderburn BVM&S CertVR MRCVS