Work-life balance” is a misleading term. It makes it sound like we can have all aspects of our life evened out on a scale…but that’s impossible. It’s an unrealistic expectation. There will always be some days where the scale tips more toward work, and other days where you get an entire afternoon at the park with your family, friends or pets.
As veterinarians, it can take time for us to feel fulfilled in both our personal and professional lives. I have found that work culture is one of the most important factors in achieving that fulfillment.
A general attitude among millennial veterinarians is that something needs to give. We’re not happy being offered jobs where we consistently have to work five to six days a week, be on call and have minimal vacation days. We value our work, but we want to be more than just veterinarians. We want a job that fulfills us, makes us happy and allows us to explore other passions. The toxic mentalities of “I did it so you have to do it too” and “This is just what we have always been doing” are not flying anymore—and this is making new waves in our profession.
Recent reflection has shown me that the key to finding fulfillment is a supportive job that shares your values. It took me three tries to find the right “work home” for me, and once you find your supportive job, everything else falls into place.
Dealing with Burnout
If you told me while I was still in vet school that I would dread going to work within two years of graduating, I would never have believed you. After my internship, I worked as an emergency and general practice vet (50:50 split), and I was easily clocking 50- to 60-hour work weeks on a regular basis. I was not taking care of myself, and was feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Every morning when I woke up, I thought of excuses to get out of work. I was heading down the road to burnout and knew I needed to make a change.
What ultimately helped me overcome burnout was finding a more supportive job. For me, the answer was working fewer shifts each week, feeling valued at my job and being around happy, positive people. This job change made all the difference in how I felt about work every day.
At first, I was scared to quit and move on to something new. I wasn’t sure if the grass on the other side was truly greener—but it was! There are so many amazing jobs out there. But in order to find the place that suits you best, it’s important to figure out what you want and need first.
Everyone’s journey to overcoming burnout will look different. While eating healthier, working out and setting boundaries are only one part of the bigger picture, they’re absolutely essential.
One major thing I emphasize to vet students is to start focusing on health, fitness and boundaries while they’re still in school. Pulling all-nighters and eating ramen noodles is not going to set you up for success when you enter the real world. It takes time to build good habits, and starting while you’re still in school can make all the difference.
The other part of the equation is finding a work environment that supports you as a veterinarian and as a human. There are so many toxic, negative work environments out there, and I have experienced them firsthand. As much as we try to separate work from life, our jobs do rub off on us. And if we are exposed to negativity all day long, that will eventually spill over into our personal lives.
For veterinarians, each day on the job is unique. We have to switch gears quickly and change our emotions in a matter of minutes as we go from a euthanasia appointment to a first kitten visit. We interact with highly-emotional pet parents as well. Having good balance in this type of work environment needs to start at the top. A management team that supports us through all the challenges of the job and shares our values makes our professional lives run more smoothly.
Nonetheless, finding a supportive work environment starts with you. Make a list of all the things you value and want out of your ideal job and number them in order of importance. What does your ideal day look like? Will you have scheduled breaks? What is the staff turnover rate?
Create a list of questions you can ask during your interview to help you focus on getting the information you need to find the job that aligns best with your goals. These questions can be broader or more specific, but they still need to answer the question of how well the employer values and treats its staff.
The next thing you need to do is a working interview. This will allow you to see the hospital in action and determine whether it matches up with what you were told during your interview. There are so many jobs out there that sound great on paper but fail to meet expectations in person. Finding the right work environment that values its people, provides support and treats its clients well can truly help you achieve the work-life balance you’re looking for.
Being a Working Mom and an Emergency Veterinarian
There was a time in my life where I was not sure if I wanted kids. I didn’t know if I could be a good mom and remain a veterinarian, and I did not feel supported within my profession. There are countless job postings out there that do not have a paid parental leave policy or great benefits. The practical side of me was not sure how I could make it work, but then I saw other working parents in veterinary medicine.
Being able to learn from them helped me feel confident that I could do it, too. And I am so glad that I am on this working-mom journey right now! It is the most fulfilling experience of my life. Being a parent is not for everyone, but it is possible to create a family and have a life outside of the profession.
A moment that sticks out to me as a working parent is a time when our daycare had a COVID exposure and shut down for the rest of the week. My husband had a full day of meetings and I was also scheduled to work. We had no friends or family nearby to help, as we had moved to a new city. I called my medical director to explain the situation, and she had no problem allowing me to bring my baby to work to hang out with me for part of the day. She even volunteered to come in and watch her if I got busy. Thankfully, it was a Tuesday, when we tended to be slower in the mornings. But what struck me was how it was a no-brainer that I could bring my daughter with me. The support I felt in that moment is something I will never forget.
Five-plus years ago, I never would have thought a career as a working-mom emergency vet could be sustainable. It sounds like long hours and a hard balance. Yet, I have found that it actually works better for me!
When I worked in general practice, I was often working four to five days a week (10+ hours a day). Now, I work two to three 12-hour shifts a week. No matter what type of vet you are, we can all get stuck late on some shifts, but with emergency work, I have fewer days where I have to stay late.
Having a supportive spouse or family nearby also makes the longer days more manageable. On days that I work, I do not get to see my baby, but I am grateful that my husband is there for her. I can also work a weekend shift here and there so that I can take over on a weekday when my husband is busy. It has been a better balancing act for me, and on top of that, I make more money in emergency working fewer shifts.
Learning From Failure
My first failure was not setting boundaries with my clients. As a new-grad vet, I made the mistake of giving my email to every client I met. I thought this would help me gain loyal clientele and make me more accessible to provide the best care. What it actually led to was numerous emails I would then need to address on my days off, which prevented me from decompressing in my personal time.
In one particular instance that I’ll never forget, I had a client emailing me daily photos of her dog’s nail bed infection. Around day three, I did not respond because I was off, and the client ended up waiting a few days longer than she should have. Her dog’s infection got much worse because she had been expecting me to reply. And when she found out the dog needed an amputation due to the severity of its condition (osteomyelitis), she dropped me as her vet and stopped seeing me. When I realized the harm that a lack of boundaries could cause, I knew something had to change.
The second failure is poor management. It’s important to feel fulfilled and valued in our profession, and having a management team that listens, supports and is open to change will allow a hospital to adapt to its specific needs. I have been surrounded by top-down management strategies for a long time now, and those simply don’t work anymore. No one wants to be told what to do by people who aren’t even working on the floor with them.
The field is changing, and having management take the role of coach is something I am striving for as a medical director. I want to support and empower my team. I learned the importance of this through prior poor management and am grateful that this experience showed me the type of management and leadership style I want to adopt.
My third failure is saying “no” to myself. Hands down, I am a “yes girl.” This mentality has allowed me to push myself and take chances. It keeps my extroverted side happy. However, it has also caused me to put myself and my own needs on the back burner. There were times when my self-care suffered and when I could have used a “me” day. Learning this about myself has motivated me to take better care of myself and take stock of what I need each day.
If you’re struggling with burnout and are uncertain about your future, stay the course and don’t give up. You are your strongest advocate. Take time to figure out what you need and want in life, know your values, define your boundaries, and make your health and wellbeing a priority. Finding balance as a veterinary professional and as a human being is never an easy or straightforward path, but it is always within your reach. +