An achievable approach to work-life balance involves changing the way we practice veterinary medicine.
In order to attract new talent, the practice of veterinary medicine must change the method and manner in which it is being delivered. A new generation of veterinarians is currently entering the workforce, and their need for a healthy, happy life must be accounted for. We must work together within the veterinary profession to create an environment that will develop and nurture new employees, both now and in the future.
CURRENT PRESSURES ON VETERINARIANS
Change can be good, but it is sometimes met with resistance. We naturally resist change because it tends to bring with it a feeling of uncertainty and loss of control. During my first year as a veterinarian, my typical workday was filled with exciting “firsts” and challenges. There was happiness when a case was successful, but also tears when things went awry; however, this was a mix I needed to experience firsthand. I loved the scope of work that made up my day. I would be delivering a calf in the morning, and repairing a dog’s humerus in the afternoon. It was exciting.
The only negatives were emergency calls and long hours. During my first six months as a vet, I was on call 24/7 for emergency duty, then transitioned to 60 hours per week. Unfortunately, the idea of shared emergency calls with other practices, or of an emergency hospital, was not a welcome topic of conversation with my employer. Neither was shortening the workweek. “You just haven’t paid your dues yet,” was a sentence frequently heard by my generation of veterinarians.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
The current generation of veterinarians experiences immense pressures. For example, clients want us to say that their pets are perfectly healthy (often with very little diagnostic information at our disposal). They want us to see their pets on-demand and at all hours of the night. They want us to give them a diagnosis whether they allow us to perform diagnostics or not. And above all, many pet owners want their vets to be the sole doctors for everything, and many times refuse referral to specialists who would offer more dedicated treatments. As vets and as a human beings, we understand that clients want nothing less than world-class service done right the first time, and delivered at reasonable cost.
On top of this, veterinarians and those with their own practices have another wall to scale: the internet. Having one’s personal and professional life placed under a public microscope is another stressor for vets and vet clinic employees. Social media can be both explicit and subtle in its interactions with us. To become a veterinarian, a student must succeed in the world of academia and higher education. He or she has to be a high achiever. However, once a student becomes a veterinarian, the grading system becomes a matter of a five-star review versus a one-star hit job.
Additionally, when one posts updates on Facebook or Instagram, they tend to be positive or funny. We post the way we want to be perceived, not necessarily the way we really are. This prompts a distorted view of how we fit in among our peers. As we try to reconcile how we feel personally, versus how all our peers appear on social media, we can become more isolated. On social media, it seems as though our peers are doing great while we feel like we can’t keep up. The chasm between what we think we need to be — perfect — versus how we are — imperfect — only widens.
As such, we are expected to not only excel overall as veterinarians, but also in the many sub-disciplines as well. We are expected to be the best at dentistry, radiology, soft-tissue surgery, orthopedic surgery, preventive care, wellness care, internal medicine, and behavior — just to name a few. This part of the veterinary culture that requires us to be a “jack-of-all-trades” veterinarian can be very demanding.
Another stressor is experiencing failure every day, when it was non-existent during our education. In addition, the increase in educational costs have given rise to enormous student loan debts. And finally, the idea of a healthy work-life balance has been introduced with no clear way to achieve it.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2019 survey of veterinary graduates, over 10% have accumulated over $300,000 worth of debt; this is a big increase from 2013 and earlier when less than 1% of graduates had that much debt (www.avma.org/blog/mixed-news-student-debt). In the years after graduating, veterinarians who have indexed their loan repayment to income have actually had their debt load increase due to interest accumulation. Many are seeing their debt-to-income ratios become too high to qualify for a home mortgage.
Today, the typical veterinarian is tasked with orchestrating multiple cases at once, trying to be proficient in multiple disciplines, working very long shifts, not getting home at a regular time, worrying about student loan debt, and not being able to leave work problems at work.
THE MODERN APPROACH FOR VET WELLNESS
First, the shift length must be shortened. Long shifts serve those who like to get their work time over with, or those who just love working so much they do not have time for a personal life. Humans operate on a diurnal rhythm, not a weekly one. We must look at work in terms of how much time it takes per day, not per week. Eight hours should be the maximum shift length veterinarians work on any given day. Our work is both intellectually and emotionally taxing. Working more than eight hours in one day does not leave time for recovery, nor allow for enough meaningful personal time during that day.
Veterinarians should also be allowed to pick a few interesting disciplines and give up the rest. They should be encouraged to excel at dermatology and preventive care, or at surgery and dentistry; simply put, be expected to know some disciplines, but not all. Clients demand excellence. Not meeting that demand is stressful.
Finally, teaching our veterinarians how to deal with the emotional pressure that clients unknowingly inflict on them is vital. Today’s veterinarian needs to learn how to work with clients to help their pets, rather than take over all the decision-making and emotional pressure that comes with it. Most of the time, a veterinarian knows very little about a pet’s condition. So learning how to be honest with a client goes a long way to reducing feelings of guilt when things go wrong.
Interestingly, when I founded the PetWellClinic, it was with the health of the veterinary employees in mind. Our shifts are kept to eight hours. This way, our vets can predict with greater certainty when they can leave. We specialize in animal conditions that do not require hospitalization, radiology or surgery, and make expert referrals for other needs.
The disciplines we do not offer in-house tend to be the most stressful. Our veterinarians see a great variety of diseases and conditions, and as primary care providers we take pride in advising clients where to go next if needed. Our veterinarians are not required to multi-task and run multiple cases at the same time. They work on one case at a time, allowing their full focus to rest on the pet in front of them. They love starting up a case and the satisfaction that comes with it, and then not having to deal with protracted diagnostics and treatment. Above all, their personal sense of balance only reaffirms their passion as veterinarians.