Decompression. It’s a word that is defined by releasing pressure or, in tech terms, it is the ability to convert something (i.e. a file) to an expanded or original size.
As it applies to the veterinary healthcare environment, those definitions can be surprisingly accurate. The need to relieve the pressures from their career can be particularly acute for new graduate veterinarians. Even more, the alleviation of those pressures may help to expand your mind and professional success. A new graduate is thrust into a somewhat foreign professional landscape that may be filled with potential emotional stressors such as, new coworkers, office politics, challenging clientele, complex cases, steep learning curves and very long days. As healthcare providers, we reflexively provide support or assistance to those in need. Trying in earnest to help all of those in need (unrealistic goals) without the time to do it (insufficient resources) can lead to Burnout.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of over 10,000 US veterinarians in 2014 determined that more than 1 in 6 veterinarians might have experienced suicidal ideation and nearly 1 in 10 may have serious psychological distress.1 Furthermore, discussions of Burnout, compassion fatigue and sustainability have become regular features of continuing education seminars and, more recently, veterinary school curricula. This makes the prevention of Burnout quite possibly a life–saving exercise.
The demands for your time and expertise will likely grow in tandem with your career. Essentially, the better you are, the more you will be needed. If you feel overwhelmed and your emotional engine is starting to lose a few revs, then utilize these two techniques to help you avoid Burnout: The Spark and the Switch.
According to Jessica Pryce–Jones’ book Happiness at Work, workers will spend an average of 90,000 hours at work in their lifetimes. For veterinary healthcare professionals, this is likely a conservative estimate. Moreover, for many new veterinary graduates, the bulk of those hours are accrued in the beginning of their careers which may increase the threat of early Burnout.
Fortunately, new veterinarians may benefit from a youthful exuberance, or a ‘novelty’ exuberance, whereby the excitement of starting a new job or the beginning their professional journey supersedes the daily physical exhaustion. If your mental engine starts to become a meow instead of a roar, search for the Spark that originally attracted you to the wonderful field of veterinary medicine.
The Rules of Engagement
Veterinarians are naturally inquisitive and intellectually curious writ large. New graduates, having recently left a richly educational environment, tend to gravitate towards continued learning opportunities. It is potentially in these learning opportunities where one can find the Spark. Searching for new research on common diseases, investigating a new surgical approach or taking a few moments to learn some of the unique benefits to common diagnostics are all potential sources for that Spark.
The Spark is highly specific to you and helps to keep you engaged. It can come from anywhere including an area of veterinary medicine for which you’ve always been passionate. For example, learning the benefits and drawbacks of PCR helped to re-caffeinate my interest in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease. The Spark may come from slightly unconventional sources.
Some veterinarians spend a lot of time discussing non–medical topics including trying to navigate economic decisions, family conflicts as it relates to the care of the animal and insurance issues. Recruiting talented members of the veterinary healthcare team to assist you when discussing these non–medical issues will lessen the emotional burden and, more importantly, allow you to focus on your true passions within the profession. Essentially, clearing the excesses off your plate may allow to actually enjoy what you chose to put on it.
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Veterinarians can be fierce warriors for the profession and the animals they care for. In addition to being scientists, clinicians, surgeons, grief counselors (at times) and other roles, animal advocacy motivates many in the profession. It’s through advocacy that your Spark can also be found.
Staunch advocacy is unmistakable when denouncing cases of animal abuse and neglect, but micronized instances of advocacy are sprinkled throughout the workday. Counseling a family on the perils of household toxins, discussing the hidden dangers of infectious disease, or providing thorough post–operative instructions to help protect pets from needless suffering are all examples of advocacy.
Fighting against the need to provide healthcare for which you disagree is a unique way to champion animal health. Feeling obligated to provide non–recommended/non–beneficial care (i.e., requests for strictly futile interventions, requests for legally proscribed or discretionary treatments, etc.) can lead to moral and ethical stress which may ultimately lead to Burnout.
Any scenario involving a potentially non–beneficial intervention (NBI) is dynamic, variable and value–laden communication, which may place a wedge between the veterinary healthcare team and their families. Scenarios like these can contribute heavily to your professional fatigue. Instead, consider reaching out to a specialist to assist in conflict resolution and communication. When you practice with a high level of confidence, integrity and conviction, the advocacy Spark shouldn’t be hard to find.
If you are ever having trouble finding your Spark, think of any one of these four affirmations before you start your day:
- Promoting animal health and wellness makes a real difference.
- My work in the veterinary healthcare industry is meaningful.
- When my job gets difficult, I still try my best with every patient, every client, every time.
- I see every client and every pet as unique with their own story and specific needs.
- By being part of this profession, I am fortunate to improve both the health of humans and animals.
The need for qualified animal healthcare workers and veterinary medical professionals is omnipresent. Not only are your skills in high demand at work, but even when you leave work, you may get a text from a friend asking you an animal question, you may be on emergency on–call or you may drive home with your head spinning from the events of the day. Your resilience to Burnout depends on how well you can turn off the ‘noise’ from work. In fact, the ability to decompress is one of the keys to being resilient against mental fatigue and apathy. This ability is the so–called Switch.
Similar to the Spark, the Switch is your personal technique for freeing your mind from work when you leave. It’s the time that you’ve dedicated to turning off the ‘buzz’ in your head from the work day. Like shutting off a light switch, changing the channel on TV or turning your phone off, the ability to quickly transition your thoughts away from work and towards a different subject will help to avoid Burnout.
To be sure, there is no panacea against Burnout—but some find that the endorphins released from a good workout, a good laugh with a friend, an evening spent relaxing with a glass of wine and a scintillating novel, or spending time with their children are great ways to decompress from work. There is no universal Switch. The technique you chose to mentally withdraw from work and recharge is specific to your needs. Welcome the challenge of a new exercise routine, a new hobby or enjoy reconnecting with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while as anti–Burnout techniques.
Conversely, selecting an unhealthy technique to decompress may be inimical to your relaxation goals. Unhealthy habits may distract you temporarily, but they may also have secondary effects that could cause you to have more anxiety later. If you feel that your techniques are personally destructive, connect with a colleague, co-worker, friend or mental health professional to investigate healthier alternatives.
Taking a Zumba class isn’t going to work for everybody, and making small changes in your personal life may not be sufficient for you to make the Switch successfully. So, if necessary, take the proactive step at work to help everyone on the team decompress. For example, if you feel like you are literally ‘at work’ all the time, the solution may not be simply leaving work earlier, but have leadership direct resources to sPosit these questions to your management team: “Why does this work environment feel so oppressively immersive that even when the staff are away, they still feel like they’re at work?”, “How can you improve the staff’s ability to disconnect?” and “Why do they feel they have to stay constantly connected?”
Likewise, if you feel like you are anxious about your work day, then the solution may not be to simply get a prescription for anti–anxiety medications. Propose these questions to leadership: “What is going on in this work environment that is causing team members to be anxious?”, “What can be done to improve their happiness?” and “How can we help team members cope with work stressors?”
As a new grad, it may be difficult to know if you are able to decompress. Use the questions below to help guide you on whether you are consistently making the Switch:
- I am able to choose whether or not to respond to work correspondence (email, text, etc.) during my free time.
- I rarely lose sleep. And if I do, it is not due to work issues.
- When I am away from work, I am not distracted by intermittent thoughts regarding work.
- I can enjoy my personal time without focusing on work matters.
Everyone can improve upon finding their Spark and making their Switch. For some, this exercise is relatively simple and continuously honed throughout their professional career. For others, this is truly a daily struggle. Burnout is especially pernicious, not only because it affects you personally, but it can be injurious to the patients we serve, the families we help and the profession we advocate for. It also may strain the relationships with your friends and family.
If you feel the prelude to Burnout creeping into your life, consider seeking professional consultation for mental health and wellness before it critically impacts your personal and work life. Understanding how to prevent Burnout among the veterinary healthcare team needs further discussion and research. Fortunately, tackling this thorny issue has now become de rigueur within veterinary healthcare culture which, until now, had been largely overlooked.
Good luck lighting that Spark and eventually making that Switch! +
1 Nett RJ, Witte TK, et al. Notes From the Field: Prevalence of Risk Factors for Suicide Among Veterinarians- United States, 2014. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Feb 13 2015; 64(05): 131-132.