The Vet Difference: Working well vs Doing well

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Vet work is stressful. I don’t care where you’re working, whom you’re working with or what type of vet you are. You are going to get stressed as a vet in one way or another. Findings published in the Australian Veterinary Journal (AVJ) on the work experiences of veterinarians in 2008 showed 70% of veterinarians agreed or strongly agreed they felt significant and regular stress. Similarly, in 2011, Trevor Heath’s study in the AVJ on workplace stress, mental health, and burnout of veterinarians in Australia concluded veterinarians experience higher levels of stress than the general population.

(A quick note: I am a veterinarian, not a psychologist. What I say below is what I have found has worked for me after learning a lot of lessons the hard way. This does not constitute medical advice.)

Stressing at work is not the problem. What I have an issue with, is I have met a lot of vets where their work seems to take over all their time. So not only do they stress at work but they stress about work on their weekends, their days off and even during their holidays. My conclusion: many vets work well but not many are doing well. Let me explain further:

In my first job I was working in Dubbo and I was really enjoying it. I had a practice car to drive around in, I was managing my own cases and I was saving lives. I was keen to do everything and I wanted to take on as many challenges as I could. So when I had an anaemic dog with rat bait toxicity and dyspnoea due to a haemorrhagic pleural effusion I stayed up most of the night sitting next to the dog, Nelson and Couto and an oxygen tank while giving a blood transfusion.  Over the Christmas holidays I volunteered to take all the afterhours so I could get some more days in lieu for a longer holiday later on (A really, really stupid idea). In those four days I saw a traumatic abdominal hernia, a dog with deep wounds from a pig hunting incident, chocolate toxicities and a whole lot of other cases. At the end of it my neighbour Bob pulled me aside and told me “What you are doing is crazy. I’m a light sleeper so I hear you driving in and out. The last few days you’ve left at 7am and you come back at about 10pm and then I hear you drive off at 2am and then come back at 3am and then you leave at 7am again.” At the time I thought this was just the normal life for a veterinarian but no its not. A few days are doable but it’s not sustainable for any extended period of time (and many vets I know have done even more crazy hours than this). What I was doing was not living the dream I was on a sure road to burning out. I look back now and realise I invested heavily into my patients and I did everything to keep them alive and I still do but the way I was doing it was not smart. I was working well but I was not doing well. And this is because I was trying to provide the best possible care without thinking about my own needs such as sleeping, eating and having fun outside of work.

So the question is then: if veterinary work is always going to be stressful how do I reduce stress? I found the only way to keep a handle of things is to balance the stress with clearly defined time for “non-vet” stuff. One of my mates at uni once told me. “We vets know how to party hard but when we need to, we know how to work hard too”.  I think some time when we started working we found out we can work hard, really hard for long hours, but because we have so much work to do it is very easy to start dipping into our own time. It is a no brainer but “non-vet” time needs to allow for a decent amount of sleep and eating properly (which I still have trouble doing). Having fun and de-stressing is a priority.

However, even when I did separate my work from my own time I found I didn’t have much time to de-stress as everyone knows a 38 hour vet workweek on paper never equates to the actual hours worked every week. So I had to be picky and find what I really liked doing and what was most effective at de-stressing me in the shortest amount of time. It took me a while to find what that was for me. One day I was looking in an Australian National Geographic Magazine and saw a man standing in a canyon in the Blue Mountains and I thought it would be awesome to become a canyoner. So a few months later, this happened:

Abseiling in Kanangra Main Canyon

Abseiling in Kanangra Main Canyon, Kanangra National Park


A weekend in Davies Canyon, Kanangra National Park

A weekend in Davies Canyon, Kanangra National Park

One weekend canyoning gets rid of all my stresses. I’m a better vet because of this and a much happier one. I am doing well, not just working well. So give it a go: clearly define your own time away from work and find your “thing” whether that be surfing, ballroom dancing, watching tv, walking your dogs or battling it out in the Tough Mudder. It worked for me.

I’m interested in knowing what other vets do to make sure they're “doing well”?

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