As burnout, compassion fatigue, imposter syndrome, and the startling rates of veterinarian suicide have burst to the forefront of conversations at conventions, veterinary blogs, and into veterinary school curriculums, mental health and well-being are making their way to being a social norm and less uncomfortable conversation.
Which is a great thing, make no mistake. Movements like #VetMedUnited and #NotOneMoreVet are exceptional platforms to raise awareness about the struggles that veterinarians face in a difficult industry.
It’s a tough conversation to have, but it is entirely necessary. It’s uncomfortable at times, but it’s real in our industry and we need to make it commonplace to talk about our struggles, to look for solutions to the overworking, the burnout, the challenging choices vets have to make every day, the veterinary school programs that are getting more and more rigorous with every graduating class. We shouldn’t be losing talented and intelligent vets because of the stigma that surrounds these topics.
But what we also shouldn’t be doing is turning mental wellness and the conversation around it into a buzzword. It’s great to talk about it, but there needs to be action, too–it can’t just be talking about it. We are at a turning point in this industry–we can talk about how we want to improve wellness in the industry; we can have lectures added to the curriculum of our schools, and we can post all the social media hashtags and posts about it we want but if there’s no action behind it, nothing is going to change in the long run. It needs to be ongoing, it needs to be genuine, and it needs to start now.
If workplaces don’t implement practices that allow their employees to actually practice wellness, things are not going to change. If schools don’t look critically at their curriculums and the expectations they put on their students and what effect it has on their well-being, things are not going to change. If this industry does not look long and hard at what has brought us to the point where we are at, things are not going to change.
So what can we do?
One of my mentors suggested it might start with getting rid of the notion of “work-life balance” or “school-life balance,” a phrase that has been thrown around quite frequently in our own curriculum, and I think she’s onto something. Instead of making work/school and the rest of our lives mutually exclusive, why can’t we accept that work or school are *part* of our lives? Why can’t we celebrate and cultivate and pursue a multi-faceted, diverse life that includes our education or occupation?
I want my career to be something that brings me joy, and that inspires me to work harder. Sure, I know there are going to be hard days, days I question everything, days I just want to turn off my alarms and go back to bed–there always will be. But I want my job as a veterinarian to be something I am grateful to be able to do, and be a part of my life that I am proud of.
But I also don’t want it to be the only thing I do.
I want to be able to spend time with my horse. I want to be able to draw and paint and play my piano and take my dog for walks and craft and visit with friends and family.
“Work-life balance” makes it seem like these two things are separate. Incompatible. Unable to exist at the same time. That somehow, we need to dedicate time to those things in the “life” category to negate the things in the “work” category, making “life” about all the fun, relaxing things, and “work” the things we have to do. Making it seem like “work” is negative.
Work is a *part* of life. School, right now, is a large *part* of my life. But it is a *part* of my life. It is not my entire life. And there are so many other parts of my life that I see as just as important as what I do in the classroom.
Let’s stop pushing ‘work-life balance’ and start pushing life balance, in general.
Let’s normalize the conversation that our profession is hard. That clients can be rude and even hurtful. That our job is gut-wrenching and soul-crushing at times. That the curriculums our students go through are reaching a level of difficulty that can be unfathomable, even for professors that were in our shoes not all that long ago. That the stresses we all undergo are real, they are felt by everyone, and that we are not alone. That our profession will consume everything you have if you let it.
Let’s serve as mentors. Let’s offer our ears to those who need to be heard the most. Let’s offer to help our colleagues in whatever ways we can. Let’s have those tough conversations. Let’s stop acting like any one of us aren’t susceptible to the stresses of this industry than anyone else. Let’s be open to sharing our stories with others and speaking our truths; let’s be brave to share our struggles because there’s likely someone in the same boat currently, or has been previously. Let’s have the same level of compassion we have for our patients, for ourselves and for our colleagues.
Let’s normalize workplace environments that encourage balance. Let’s stop acting like the hours of lack of sleep and amount of overtime or crazy hours of studying and pulling all-nighters, or the number of meals skipped are badges of honor.
Let’s work on fixing veterinary school curriculums around the country. I don’t think there is a program out there that has entirely perfected the art of the veterinary curriculum. In a field where there are major strides and innovations, there is more to learn than ever but there are still only 24 hours in a day. Let’s figure out how to better educate our students, and prepare them for their careers without simultaneously sending them into the field already burnt out and bitter from their education.
I don’t know what the solutions are; I don’t know what the best vet school curriculum looks like, or what the best protocols to be put into place in veterinary clinics to help alleviate the issues we are facing in the industry, but I know that they are out there. This is a field of exceptionally talented, dedicated, passionate, driven, and super-insanely intelligent individuals who are trained for a career of problem-solving.
So let’s get to it.
Let’s have the conversations, let’s listen without judgment, let’s find the pitfalls, let’s focus on better life balance, let’s develop ourselves in areas of our lives that aren’t just school and work, let’s brainstorm and then let’s work on changing the veterinary industry environment.