When taking steps to maintain your mental health and energy levels as a busy veterinary practitioner, you need to do more than achieve work-life balance.
Veterinary professionals today must protect their mental health and energy. Recent studies show that as many as 85% are experiencing depression and burnout,1 while a study done in 2012 found that 19% had considered suicide.2 In fact, almost every veterinary professional with whom I have spoken has a personal connection to someone who decided to end their life. The good news is that veterinary professionals are waking up to the issue and becoming more proactive about solutions. Work-life balance is a commonly discussed topic — but I do not believe this is sufficient to solve the problem and turn the field around.
What does “work-life balance” mean?
I run a coaching business for veterinary women. Whenever new clients come into my coaching community, I ask them where they want to be in five years. “I want to have more work-life balance,” is one of the most common answers I hear. Yet when I ask them what that means in their lives, most don’t know.
What they do know is that they’re miserable in their jobs. They know they’re tired and exhausted, and feel they never have enough time to relax and recharge. They know something needs to change. Many of these women are looking for new jobs when they find me. And I fully admit that for some of them, that’s the right solution at the moment. But I’m going to tell you a story.
Back in 2013, I was a weekend emergency doctor. I worked days and was on call at night. I often worked from one day all through the night, and then the whole next day as well, with no additional compensation. On paper, that job was horrible. But I was actually happy.
I left for various reasons and took a job in a small town at a small animal day practice. I went from working four days a week (including both weekend days) and two nights a week on call, to a four-and-a-half-day schedule with no nights on call. On paper, this clinic looked ideal, but I was miserable. I hated the job, and I hated where we were living. I had a great work-life balance yet I burned out quickly and felt completely trapped, unsure where to turn next.
I’ve seen similar situations with several of my clients.
Work-life balance is a worthwhile goal — if it is part of the big picture. We also have to work on ourselves so we can be happier at work. If we are unhappy in our jobs because of poor boundaries or mindsets, that unhappiness will overflow into our home life (which is why work-life balance isn’t enough) and is likely to follow us to the next job!
If we instead prioritize working on ourselves, on our mindsets and self care, we can improve our quality of life even while at a job that may not be ideal anymore. It’s then possible to be happier at that job, which cascades into improved overall happiness and an ability to find a better situation in the future.
So how do we improve our mindset and self care within the realms of any work situation?
1. Allow yourself to dream
The first activity I assign to anyone who comes into my coaching community is to dream. I believe one of the biggest problems faced by professionals in our field who feel trapped is simply that we don’t dream anymore. We decided we wanted to be veterinarians when we were so young that we knew what our path was for years, and we stayed on it, through high school, college and vet school, then our first job. It was straightforward and we never stopped to think what else we wanted out of life.
We fell into a pattern. And then, when we began to feel stuck, it never occurred to us that we could break the pattern just by remembering we have other goals and ambitions. I also find that many of my clients struggle to dream because it’s very hard to admit that the goal they worked towards for so long — becoming a veterinarian — isn’t always what they expected it to be. However, just because you’re allowing yourself to start dreaming again, and setting new goals, does not mean you have to leave the field, or that you made the wrong choice by going into it in the first place. It just means you’re looking towards the next steps.
Allowing ourselves to dream is a baby step. It doesn’t require any commitment, and nothing is set in stone. We’re dreaming about how we would like our life to look.
That simple act often creates excitement in our lives again. We become clearer on our goals and excited about our destination, which decreases the trapped feelings and creates more hope for the possibilities.3 Just this one step alone can start to change your mindset, which can dramatically change your life and level of happiness.
2. Look for the roadblocks
Once we’ve allowed ourselves to dream of where we want to be, we have to address those inevitable thoughts of “that’s not possible!” If we don’t address them, they remain obstacles and hinder progress towards our goals.The most common obstacle I see is fear. Everyone has it, but unless we address it, we may either not see our next steps or choose not to take them! I see three common types of fear in my work.
a) Fear of failure4,5 — We’re afraid to try anything new because we may not succeed. That’s a hard pill to swallow for most veterinarians! Additionally, many of us hesitate to proceed if we don’t know exactly how our goals are going to come about because we can’t see every step. Yet we have to take action despite the fear My clients often say, “I haven’t updated my resume to apply for jobs, because what if I don’t get any of them?” “Okay,” I respond. “How many jobs are you getting when you aren’t updating and submitting your resume?” It’s a simplistic example, but this type of thought reversal can be used for almost any situation in which you fear failure. We can never succeed at something if we don’t try!
b) Fear of success6 — “Well, if I’m successful, and I make a lot of money, then everyone is always going to be asking me for money and thinking I’m greedy, and I don’t want that!” Other versions are similar, but you get the point. More importantly, we worry that when we succeed, we may not be able to sustain that success. This almost feels worse than failing in the first place! Simply recognizing that you have these fears is often all it takes to move past them and take action. You can also look for people in your world who have achieved what you want to achieve, without experiencing the things you’re worried might happen. Look for stories that prove your fears wrong!
c) Fear of judgment — Put simply, we put too much thought and energy into worrying about what other people will think. What will they think if we fail? What will they think if we’re successful? The reality is that their opinions don’t matter. I realize that’s easier said than accepted, but the only person whose opinion matters is your own. Obviously, depending on the situation, I’m not telling you to ignore your boss! But when we’re talking about our dreams, what we want out of life, or what we want our lives to look like, so many people hold themselves back because of what other people think. It’s time to stop caring about this so much and live the life you want.
3. Establish strong self care
Self care is often discussed as a way to increase happiness in our lives. However, the concept includes a myriad of pieces. We often hear about self care practices that promote health and help us feel better. Certainly exercising and eating right, in addition to scheduling fun and relaxing activities such as pedicures and massages, can all be part of a self care program. But I believe very strongly that the most important aspect of self care is respecting our own boundaries.7 What are we willing to tolerate in our lives, and what are we no longer willing to tolerate?
This facet of self care is the biggest reason why just finding a new job isn’t the solution. If you don’t set good boundaries at one job, you’re not going to set them at another. If you don’t know where your boundaries are when it comes to what you will tolerate in your life, then you’re likely putting up with lots of situations that increase your stress.
Sometimes the most difficult part involves boundaries with ourselves. Boundaries such as: “I won’t go on social media every time I have a down minute at work today” or “I’m going to make sure I get eight hours of sleep tonight, no compromising.”
We have to figure out what our own bodies and minds need, and then we have to set and maintain boundaries to protect those needs!8
Self care isn’t just spa days and exercise. It’s also figuring out what we’re willing to allow into our lives, and what we’re no longer willing to tolerate, not only from our jobs, families, and friends, but also from ourselves!
Work-life balance is a worthy goal. But it can’t be the only focus. If your goal is to have more of the “life” part, but you’re still miserable while at work, then your overall happiness will be severely affected and you’ll still find yourself drained. If you work on your mindset and self care, however, then you can improve almost any job, which is automatically going to improve your quality of life. And when your mindset and self care improve, it will be easier to not only achieve the life you want, and obtain that work-life balance you’ve been striving for, but to also enjoy your whole day, not just the “life” part.