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Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First – Emotional Wellbeing For Veterinary Pros

Vet Well Being

You’re familiar with this scenario: You and your partner are at the cinemas, where you bump into their new colleague. They introduce you: “This is my partner, Dr. Biscuitpockets, a Veterinarian.”

You brace yourself for one of two inevitable reactions. “Oh, how wonderful to spend your whole day with kittens and puppies!” …or…”I can’t imagine. How do you handle it when an injured animal comes in? Or when you have to deal with neglect cases?” Welcome to the emotional roller coaster that is life in the Veterinary world -Vet Wellbeing 101.

Sometimes its easier to talk to a room full of schoolchildren about expressing anal glands than it is to address these questions in a socially appropriate fashion. So outwardly, you smile and make give a vague shrug, but within, you’re thinking, “Any minute, I’m going to capsize.” 

Livin’ the Dream

As a veterinary professional, you deal with all the same issues that most of our society faces: Office politics, scheduling conflicts, and the disparity between your private and professional lives. Add to the mix patients who can’t communicate their symptoms or pain thresholds, your frustration with mysterious illnesses, and having to interact with pet owners who are ignorant, irresponsible, or just plain thick…that is, if they’re not absolutely distraught with grief or concern for their beloved pet.

Let’s not forget long nights brushing up on new procedures and medications, or cancelling a family holiday to fill in for a co-worker who just up and quit.

How do you cope? How do you know when you’re finally, absolutely at the end of your tether?

Indications That You Need to Prioritise Your Own Vet Wellbeing

Do you feel like throwing in the towel and switching careers? Is the thought of working in a hotel laundry more appealing than spending another day in your role at the clinic? When you begin to recognise the symptoms, it’s time to make some serious changes.

  • You’re snappy with your colleagues, friends, and family.
  • You find it difficult to concentrate.
  • You’re simply not motivated—or you’re too exhausted—to emotionally invest in your personal or professional relationships.
  • You can’t seem to find the physical or mental wherewithal to perform basic functions at work.
  • You’ve simply lost interest in your passions.

“When you’ve reached the point of burnout, it can feel like you’ve had the life sucked out of you. You no longer feel capable of caring about what’s important to you, to making any effort, or staying motivated.” — ReachOut Australia

According to ReachOut Australia, the symptoms of stress differ from those of burnout. Do any of these sound like you?

  • You are often angry or peeved for no particular reason.
  • You feel that you’re always anxious.
  • You’d rather be alone than interact with your favourite people.
  • You’re a raw nerve; things that you’d normally take in stride now set you off.
  • You feel worthless or incompetent, regardless of your achievements.

So. Are you stressed, or are you burned out? Who cares! It all adds up to the same thing: You’re miserable, and things need to change.

How to Look After Yourself

It’s not as easy as taking a weeklong holiday at a health spa, or simply getting more exercise and improving your diet. Though all of these are important (we’d like to justify annual spa retreats too) to Vet Wellbeing, stress management and mental health care require fundamental changes to our daily lives.

The following are the three most important steps toward combating burnout.

See your GP

Your physician can rule out underlying illnesses and offer advice on stress management. More importantly, she can refer you to mental wellness resources. If your family has a history of depression, you are more likely to experience the symptoms of stress and burnout. Only a licensed psychologist— a mental health provider with a Ph.D.— has the skills to properly diagnose mental illnesses, and while there are social stigmas associated with mental health issues, there are even more associated with lying in a gutter with a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka.

Eat Better and Get More Exercise

I know, we just said that this isn’t enough, but if you aren’t taking care of yourself, your body and brain loses its ability to cope. Do you ever tell your patients’ owners that their pets will benefit mentally (and behaviourally) with physical exercise and higher quality food? Take your own advice. Don’t forget to get plenty of rest—including brain rest—and give yourself permission to take time out to pursue your personal interests.

Try Mindfulness Meditation Techniques

Do you have a nagging voice in your head that constantly tells you you’re screwing up, or that you’re doomed to fail? You might identify that voice as a critical parent. Perhaps you’re predicting what your colleagues or boss will say whether you get things right or get them wrong.

One of the most important goals of mindfulness is shutting that voice down, and teaching you that thoughts and feelings are separate things. Mindfulness is a tool that’s embraced in cognitive behavioural therapy, and Fortune 500 companies are encouraging their employees to learn more about it.

Learn to Set Boundaries

Do you ever feel pressure to say “yes” when you really feel you need to say “no”? Do you feel like a pleaser, while at the same time feeling like you’re constantly nailing yourself to a cross? Setting and respecting your personal and professional boundaries is probably the best thing you can do to preserve your sanity in the high-pressure world of veterinary medicine. Plus, you’re doing your co-workers and patients a disservice if you spread yourself too thin or become resentful. There’s a difference between being a team player and being an overtaxed prospect for the loony bin.

Learn more about helpful techniques for creating Vet Wellbeing boundaries in the workplace in this article from the Harvard Business Review, which contains links to fantastic books on the subject. Chances are, you have boundary issues in your personal life, too, so learn to respect your limits and make careful choices about your commitments.

How to Create a Clinic “Culture” that Promotes Staff Wellbeing

Group hug, anyone? Yeah. Right.

The first step in reducing conflict in the workplace is fostering a positive environment for constructive criticism and communication across all departments. The second step is making a commitment to use that information to improve staff relations through clearly-defined goals.

The third step? Show that you value your staff, your customers, and yourself by following through, and reviewing your veterinary clinic’s working environment on an ongoing basis.

If You’re a Technician, Nurse, or Office Clerk:

You might feel you’re not entitled to an opinion on how staff is managed at your place of employment, but you and your health are important to the overall well-being of your clinic. Your input matters.

“Anyone who mistreats you, is disrespectful of your wishes, refuses to hear you, and has no intention of changing is trouble with a capital T. Be ready to walk away without fear or guilt, and don’t look back.” — Abigail Brenner, M.D. “7 Tips to Create Healthy Boundaries with Others”, Psychology Today

Do you feel your suggestions or grievances will be received with respect? If you say no, try again. Use these tips to help you get your point across.

  • You used “I feel” language instead of “you do this…” to prevent your co-worker or employer from going on the defensive.
  • You were specific about your concerns.
  • You’ve shown willingness to take responsibility for your role in conflicts.
  • You presented your opinions or suggestions at an appropriate moment (i.e. not when the other person had her hand up a horse’s bum or was clearly having a horrible day).
  • You gave the other person space to think things over (writing a letter or e-mail is a good way to present your case, with an invitation to talk privately).

If you’ve done all the above, and feel there aren’t any positive, reasonable changes on the horizon, it might be time to start looking for a workplace more deserving of your skills and efforts.

For Clinic Managers, Practice Partners, or Lead Veterinarians:

We left this part for last because it’s important to understand things from the perspective of your staff. Most of the advice that applies to them also applies to you, and their input could go a long way to improving everyone’s chances for a rewarding career at your clinic.

Ultimately, you’re responsible for maintaining the desired “culture” of your clinic, from its atmosphere of collaboration and personal investment to your ability to motivate and inspire your staff.

If your budget allows, you can make changes that will increase productivity, reduce staff turnover, and improve customer care. In exchange, you’ll save money in the long run and likely increase new business. Options to consider for improving mental well-being among your staff and reducing workplace conflict might include:

  • Team building activities
  • All-staff meetings to foster communication with staff-suggested topics
  • Staff “suggestion boxes” for anonymous communication (not quite recommended when you have a support staff of one… ) or topic recommendations for the above
  • Mandatory paid days off for staff (i.e. no pressure to stay on the schedule)
  • Paid volunteer days when staff can help out with a non-profit of their choosing; this gives staff a change of pace and scene. Volunteering can also help reduce stress, even among busy employees.
  • Additional hires to reduce workloads

You’re also responsible for taking an objective look at how your own stress levels are contributing to that felt within the clinic.

“But… I’m already overwhelmed,” you say. “I can’t manage to oversee all these changes right now.” Of course you are! If you don’t put your own oxygen mask on before you assist your co-workers, the whole plane just might go down in flames. Remember that the next time you think of throwing your personal and professional boundaries under the bus.

If you’re honest and appropriately transparent about your own concerns and challenges, and you acknowledge the importance of improving things around the clinic, you’re more likely to earn the respect of your co-workers and staff than if you leave them in the dark.

Things Will Get Better

You may not feel like it right now, but you’re not out of options. There are plenty of resources to help you climb out of this Vet Wellbeing hole, and you deserve to nurture yourself to the same degree you look after your patients. And when you’re ready—and only then—you’ll be better equipped to lend a hand to your colleagues, friends, and family.


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