What Does Work-Life Balance Mean for Veterinarians?
As everyone in our field knows, veterinary professionals are busier than ever. This leads many of us to assume that practicing means long hours at a mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding job with little work-life balance. But, is this actually true? Or, has a false narrative been passed down that we simply assume is both true and unavoidable?
How to Achieve a Work-Life Balance as a Veterinarian
Divining the answer to these questions means first asking, "What does work-life balance mean?" Once you identify what that is for you, it'll be easier to solve the burnout puzzle. Getting there, however, as with all good things, will take preparation, perseverance, and problem-solving. Here are three steps that might help you do that.
1. Objectively Examine Your Situation
If you're feeling fried, resentful, or dissatisfied, it's time to take a step back and examine your situation from an objective viewpoint. This in itself can take some self-discipline, especially if you're used to devoting every spare minute to work. Don't worry; you're not alone. But to get a clear, objective view of the big picture, it may be necessary to take a step back—or three.
So, make it a priority to carve out a little time to grab a cup of something comforting and your journal, then answer these questions as honestly as you can:
- What about my life currently causes me stress or feels out of balance? What am I dissatisfied with?
- In terms of hours, what do I devote the most to? What does not get attention as a result?
- How are these decisions affecting my job performance and engagement? And my relationships with my loved ones?
- In general, how do I feel about my life as it stands now? Am I energized and fulfilled or drained and unsatisfied?
Although it often takes a major life event, such as the birth of a child, a serious illness, or the death of a loved one, to catalyze this type of self-reflection, you don't have to wait until that happens. In fact, you may be better prepared if you examine and evaluate your priorities often.
2. Rethink Your Priorities
Now that you have increased your self-awareness, you have some of the information needed to put things into perspective. If your life balance is out of whack, consider reprioritizing how you spend your time to make your choices align better with what you truly care about. Answering these questions in your journal may help you do that:
- What is really important to me?
- If I have been prioritizing work over something else, why do I feel it's necessary to prioritize my life this way? Is it really necessary?
- What have I been sacrificing in my current priorities, and how much longer am I willing to do that? What regrets might I have if I continue on the current track?
- In an ideal world where money was no object, how would I spend my time?
3. Make External and Internal Changes
Regardless of what's stirred up by these questions, don't quit your day job just yet. Before you consider such a drastic change, reflect on the parts of your life and work that you could adjust to better align with your priorities. This may be most successful if you pursue both external changes to your environment and internal changes to your beliefs about work patterns.
Internal changes can look like setting boundaries and sticking to them. This might mean learning to say "no" and dealing with any work martyr tendencies or people-pleasing patterns. If this sounds impossible to you, then don't hesitate to get professional help. It took six sessions of therapy for me to get over the mindset that I'm only valuable if I'm making money or cleaning something. Now, I'm able to comfortably take time out to care for myself and my needs.
External changes involve aspects of your current position. Perhaps this means taking on a new work role that is less demanding or more flexible. It could mean learning better time management skills to allow for more family and recreation time or incorporating easy self-care ideas for when you're short on time. It could even involve just turning electronic devices off earlier in the evening to give your nervous system more time to calm down, or simply giving yourself more hours of sleep. You might also consider talking to your life partner and your work supervisor to share your concerns, secure support, and devise a plan that's sustainable for you.
Most people do better with accountability, so enlist support from family members or colleagues to help you stay on track and not skip the things that bring more meaning, energy, and joy into your life because they are "less important" than work.
Breaking the Pattern in Veterinary Medicine
Breaking the pattern of an unbalanced life takes self-awareness and courage. Your desire for a fulfilled, balanced life must be greater than your compulsion to work yourself to the bone. Remember that your perceived obligation to put work ahead of everything else is a function of your training and mindset. As Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
So, ask yourself now: "What does work-life balance mean to me?" Pondering that question and your own answers can help you find that new, healthier perspective.