A guest article by Dr. Theresa Loo – Putting Yourself First.
When I say I’m a veterinarian, I’m filled with a sense of overwhelming pride and purpose. But as much as this profession fulfills me, it can also be incredibly draining. I’ve been reading more and more about the prevalence of compassion fatigue, burnout, and anxiety in the veterinary industry. As someone who has suffered from these conditions myself, I empathize. I know how hard it is to make enough money to sustain a decent lifestyle, pay off your never-ending student loans, keep up with your mortgage/rent/bills, and still have enough energy left over to give to your loved ones at the end of the day.
Now factor in the impossible standards of perfectionism that we often place on ourselves, working for employers who don’t listen to the pleas of their over-exhausted employees and clients who sometimes don’t understand the grueling nature of the job and you have a ticking time bomb.
The longer I work in this profession, the more I’m not surprised to learn the rate of suicide in the veterinary profession is nearly double that of dentists, more than twice that of human medical professionals, and four times greater than the rate of the general population. Veterinarians have stressors that are unique to their profession and recent studies suggest that 1 in 6 have considered suicide, 1 in 10 have suffered severe psychology distress and that veterinarians were found to be 1.5 times more likely to have suffered a depressive event since veterinary school (CDC. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 2015;64(05):131–132).
Male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely and female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely to die from suicide as members of the U.S. general population, and these higher suicide mortality rates are culled from the 35-year period between 1979 to 2014 and based on numbers presented at the 2018 Veterinary Wellbeing Summit.
So what do we do about all of this? I don’t pretend to know everything, so all I can do is share four key lessons I’ve learned from my experiences.
Lesson #1: Letting Go of Guilt
Guilt is an emotion that many veterinarians are familiar with. Personally, I was always worried that I wasn’t working hard enough even though I often saw over 20 patients a day with no lunch break and worked until 9:00 pm when I was technically off at 4:30 pm. God forbid you to go home at the time you’re scheduled to be off or get a full lunch, clearly, that meant you didn’t work hard enough! Even as I was burning out, all I could think about was how I was letting my clients down. I felt guilty about not being able to be at their beck and call. Would they be able to forgive me? Would they be upset with me?
My husband would often find me checking client emails and answering their questions on my days off, which was completely my fault. I had erased the boundaries between myself and my clients because I somehow decided that their needs were more important than my need to relax on my days off and spend time with my own family. I put their concerns before mine because I equated being a good doctor to self-neglect and suffering. I know, it sounds ridiculous! But I really had trouble getting off the hamster wheel. Sometimes, I left work feeling ashamed that I didn’t have the capacity to give everything to everyone at all times. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we beat ourselves up when we are already down?
Veterinary medicine is difficult enough without the impossible standards of perfectionism we often impose on ourselves. I’ve noticed that we tend to compare ourselves to those who seem to have it all together and can handle anything. I often thought to myself, “Well, if they can do it, then so should I.” This is actually incredibly counter-productive because, in the end, we are who we are. Everyone’s tolerance varies and if you’re unhappy and overworked, then that’s a valid concern irrespective of others’ levels of work tolerance.
I realized that underneath all the guilt was a fear that I simply wasn’t doing enough. I had to learn to give myself credit for what I was able to accomplish every day instead of beating myself up for what I was not able to get to. This profession is a marathon and we need to practice self-preservation. We can’t keep running on empty, we need to save some of ourselves for the next day and the day after. I learned that I wasn’t going to be helping anyone if I burned out, especially not my furry little patients!
Lesson #2: Know Your Worth
It’s so important that our work environment lifts us up both professionally and personally because approximately 1/3 of our life is spent working. I’ve worked in practices where the boss uses a fear-based management style to place unrealistic expectations on their staff that isn’t commensurate with their compensation. They allow their staff to be belittled by horrible, entitled clients and have no compunctions about throwing a team member under the bus for fear of a bad Yelp review. (More on Yelp later!)
All of these factors can lead to a negative work environment that makes it impossible for anyone to thrive. As my medicine and confidence grew, I learned how to stand up for myself and what I believed in. Sometimes we don’t see how awful a situation is until we remove ourselves from it. It’s so easy to normalize bad working conditions because the pain of the unknown is worse than the pain of staying. But if your boss doesn’t care about your mental health, or worse yet, if they’re the cause of your emotional anguish, then it’s time to leave.
We aren’t trapped.
Trust me, there’s always something better out there!
Lesson #3: Self Validate
My husband told me once that he thought veterinarians are special people because they spend their lives helping living beings that don’t know they’re being helped. Sometimes it can be a thankless job that’s complicated by Yelp, and other online reviews. I’d be totally lying to say that reviews don’t affect me, I’m at the point where I can’t even bother to look at them anymore. It’s taken a long time, but I learned the hard way that self-worth must come from within.
One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, has an amazing quote that I try to live by these days: “If you aren’t in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” That quote was derived from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” which is as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I still struggle with self-validation, though I think I’ve gotten better at it. Ultimately, as veterinarians, if we live or die with each online review, then we’re allowing ourselves to be at the mercy of our clients’ whims. Our focus should be on the quality of medicine, doing the best we can, and not about who said what and why. In the end, everyone has an opinion, and we can’t let our internal worth be defined by external stimuli.
Lesson #4: Put Yourself First
If there is anything I learned from my career so far, it’s to have the courage to put yourself first.
We’re so used to giving everything we have and feeling like we should be perfect and have it all together. But we’re human and we need to have the courage to say that we deserve better — to be able to say ‘no’ to others and ‘yes’ to ourselves and to a better life. At the end of the day, we just have to know that we’re doing the best we can and have enough self-awareness to know that we can’t take care of others until we take care of ourselves. Because if we don’t, then who will?
What do you all think? Please let me know your experiences in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading,
If you liked this article, read “Burnout and compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine” in our blog.