Burn out. Substance abuse. Suicide. Mental illness. These things don’t sound like behind the scenes issues at your friendly family veterinarian’s office anymore than they seem like behind the scene issues at the dentist or pediatrician’s office. But they are. They might even be behind the scene issues at your place of work, or in your personal life.
I might have ideas about why as a society we are seeing more – or in my opinion have more time, money and changing social views to deal with – issues of mental health, substance abuse and the relationship our working environment plays in them. But I am not a sociologist, I am a veterinarian and this is a veterinary blog. Though I do sometimes dabble in other topics I consider to be; fun Hooch Heart of Bixi, important Philosophy Sacrifice Communication communication Optimism Parenting, or even sometimes a little existential I don’t HAVE a body. I AM a body I typically approach most things here as a veterinarian, which ties into what I want to write about today. It would be easy for me to state here that being a veterinarian is who I am but in reality, being a veterinarian is what I do. If somehow, I couldn’t be a veterinarian anymore, I would still be me but would have to do something else to pay my bills. And that would be alright. Not great. Alright.
In veterinary medicine – as in probably any other profession – stress levels can be high. The emotional toll it takes can be immense and the burnout rate is getting higher as more brilliant doctors are graduating unprepared for a high-paced, service oriented profession.
My own career path has danced dangerously close to the edge of burnout more than once. In full disclosure, I struggle with Major Depressive Disorder which was diagnosed and a successful treatment/management plan was instituted while I was in college. That does not mean I am immune to relapse. While this has not helped me deal with professional stress directly, learning how to deal with depression has helped me realize how much I was getting in my own way when it comes to dealing with professional stress.
I have broken down the steps I have taken into topics that I was able to use to limit the professional stress I experience at work and ultimately allow myself to enjoy what I do in spite of myself sometimes. Because it worked out this way and because it was fun, I used words starting with the letter “D” to describe these steps. Hence the title of this post.
Decision: Before I could make any changes to my professional life I had to decide that a change was necessary. That was the hard part: deciding what areas were the most important ones to change. This meant looking at myself and my situations in an objective and critical light and determining what changes were going to bring the most satisfying and positive changes. This is the hardest part, as it involved taking a serious life inventory and acknowledging that at the end of the day, I was the person most responsible for my own happiness and my own misery.
Detachment: This was the most important part. If I was going to avoid burning out and giving up, I was going to have to step back to see this from outside my own head. Detachment was probably the best thing I was able to do for myself as it allowed me to recognize how much I was taking personally and why. I realized I didn’t want to get better, I wasn’t looking to improve and I definitely didn’t want to actually avoid burning out. I wanted to focus on my strengths and act elitist about stuff that matters to maybe 0.1% of the population. I wanted people to recognize that veterinarians- and me, by association- had it really hard and this job was really stressful. I wanted other people to validate me and my greatness. I wanted people to recognize how compassionate I was, how much I understood about medicine and science. I wanted people to understand how much we had to deal with. Ultimately, I wanted this to be about me. It turns out, when I detached and looked at that, it looked as bad as it does in black and white above.
Holy ego Batman! What is wrong with this person? In reality, nothing. It was simply that I had so much of my personal identity tied up in my profession that it was impossible for me to separate the two. This unsurprisingly led to me taking every criticism and obstacle as a personal reflection of who I was and how good I was. This is a formula certain to stunt professional growth as well as personal development.
Once I was able to step back and look at the situation instead of my response to the situation, I was able to see how much my perspective was limiting my ability to get better. I also saw how destructive it was to continue to see what I do as who I was and how ultimately that could lead to some pretty dark and destructive behavior on my part.
Then I had to institute a plan that could be executed daily. The first thing I needed was to recognize that this wasn’t about me. How people choose to approach their pet’s health care, how they feed their pets, whether or not they choose to utilize the preventative measures I recommend had little if anything to do with me. They were coming to me for the service I provide, true enough. But it is about them and their pet and has nothing to do with me, at least personally. Taking this position allows me to focus on how to be better professionally without allowing it to reflect on me as a person. Putting my ego in the backseat allowed me to learn more from a greater variety of people. No longer was someone who knew more about something in my field “better” than me. Instead, they were more interesting to discuss things with and conversations stopped being about being right or the best and started being about learning everything I could from everyone around me.
Discipline: Any plan is only as good as your willingness to execute it daily. For that, I have developed other daily habits that seem unrelated to my goals but ultimately keep me focused and consistent.
Deadlifts: I considered skipping this one but it is important. A huge part of what keeps my head on straight and helps me keep the darkness from pouring in and taking over my day to day is that I routinely go to the same place and lift heavy things until I am dog tired. This stress, success, consistency and ability to monitor progress helps immensely and might be the most important thing I do for myself. Turns out I am not making this up:
Ultimately, the take away from this is: whatever you do in this life for work may be a big part of your life, but it’s not who you are. If somehow your profession was ripped away from you, you would not cease to be who you are. The sooner we decide to detach from our professions more and discipline ourselves to stay detached, the better protected we will be from burnout, compassion fatigue and the burdens that follow.
Thank you for reading.