Musings of a Veterinarian

How’s Your Quality of Life?

April 21, 2014 By: Dr. K Category: Opinion

These days veterinary magazines are bombarded with articles about balancing life and work, staying healthy, dealing with stress and burnout, and managing debt load. These articles are the canary in the coal mine indicating a stressed out, oftentimes dissatisfied workforce.

I’ve had the unique experience of working at multiple practices over the past several years while functioning as an emergency and general practice relief veterinarian. One thing remains constant in the spectrum of all practices: This profession chews you up and spits you out.

The practices with the worst policies and employee treatment churn through employees who leave due to dissatisfaction from dysfunction. Veterinarians in the best practices oft times struggle but know they are lucky when they hear the horror stories of the comrades abroad. Burnout is real and rapid. Why?

Veterinary medicine is not puppies and kitten, rainbows and unicorns. Period.

The field has been romanticized by the likes of James Herriot and Nick Trout (who I read and love), misrepresented by Dr. Pol, and placed on a pedestal by the general public. Practicing veterinary medicine in 2014 means many things to veterinarians:

1. We deal with money problems. And not just our own.

New graduates arrive on the scene with exorbitant amounts of student loan debt – sometimes surpassing $250,000. New graduate pay doesn’t come close to sustaining a reasonable standard of living when accounting for student loan repayments (which peskily knock on the door six months after graduation). Indebtedness looms large.

The general public has the impression veterinarians are rich. This is so absurd it’s laughable. I haven’t heard of too many human specialists get accused of being in it for the money.

Veterinarians are asked to perform services for free. Every day, many times a day. Giving away services is noble and self-sacrificing. And if I really cared about their dog/cat/ferret/stray I would do my job for free. I would ignore overhead, my loans, paying my employees, offering benefits, and keeping the practice cost effective for clients who are willing to pay for services…If only I cared enough.

The psychological battering sucks the life out of you. And it never ceases.

2. We see the worst in humanity far more often than we see the best.

No law prevents horrible human beings from owning pets. Too many animals are owned by people who intentionally neglect or harm them. Generally obnoxious, self-righteous people crank it up a notch when it comes little Fluffy.  The stress of making life or death decisions that are many times tied to finances cultivates the worst in people. I’ve been the recipient of more than one comment about stealing the food from a child’s mouth.

3. Semper Fi

Clients have expectations that we should always be available. This has led to late evening office hours, 12-16 hours days, and added appointments to an already full schedule. It is far too common for vets to work 50-60 hours a week or more, through the evening and weekend, and even in the middle of the night after a full day of work. I have had experiences with clients who are angry we are closed on a Sunday, angry I wanted them to head to a staffed emergency center at 3am for a blocked cat, and even angry because *gasp* I was a “lady doctor” and not that man doctor they usually see.

Battling fatigue is unhealthy for the body and the mind. Missing time at home is corrosive to families.

If it’s that bad, why am I even a vet?

Well, if we are honest with ourselves, we vets will admit we’ve asked ourselves this question on more than one occasion. So why do it? There are good cases, happy endings, excellent practices, loving clients. There are thankful employers, friendships built, and grateful pets.  There is an inherent “rightness” in what we do. And there is reward. For many, that is enough to combat the heaps of emotional (and sometimes literal) crap we wade through on a daily basis. For others, like a vet school classmate I recently spoke with, it was not.  She is now working outside of the profession and is happier because of it.

Can you have a reasonable quality of life when practicing veterinary medicine?

That’s up to you. My theory on having it all goes like this:

There are three things we all want/need to have a balanced life. Work, Family/God, and Sleep. It is easy to have two. The third is where it gets difficult.

I can’t imagine working full-time and taking care of my daughter/home/husband while also maintaining my sanity and not losing my identity. I’ve struck my quality of life balance by working part-time, raising my daughter, and getting the down time I need to still be me.

I’ve got it all together, don’t I? … Wait, did I say three things? Let’s not forget the fourth…MONEY! By working part time I sacrifice money. And there’s the rub.

We do the best we can in this profession. Finding a balance is tough. Maybe you need to cut your hours. Maybe you need to own your own hospital and set your own rules. Maybe you have a personality that lets the turmoil roll off of your back and you are unaffected. Or maybe you need to step out of the profession and see if the grass really IS greener.

You can’t have it all, no matter what job you chose. There is no magic equation. Some of the best advice I have ever heard came from the former CEO of Commerce Bank Vernon Hill.

If your circumstances aren’t going to change, you need to accept them or change yourself. It’s that simple.

And that friends, is how you get the quality of life you want.

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