A 2015 study found that 1 in 11 veterinarians have psychological stress, while a 2019 study found that mortality ratios for suicide in veterinarians are significantly higher than the general population (1,2). Potential reasons for these variances are cited and include debt, compassion fatigue, and burnout.
As a result, certain necessary buzzwords and phrases have developed, such as work-life balance, debt-to-income ratio, and toxic work environments. These phrases help tackle the menacing issues that plague our profession, yet there is one word often overlooked: boundaries. Utilizing boundaries in everyday practice can be a rewarding experience while also effectively combating burnout and fatigue.
In my short time as a practicing veterinarian, I have identified multiple places where we tend to lack boundaries. But first…
Food for thought: set a firm “day off” boundary
For me, it is easier to explain with an example. A few years ago, I met up with a group of veterinarian friends to attend a concert. We sat down for lunch before the concert to catch up. While at lunch, more than one of my friends received a call from their clinics asking for help with a situation – which then incited a conversation amongst us.
They vented their frustration with how they are unable to truly have a day off – one without calls, without emails, without fielding work problems. I interjected that I never take calls on my off day unless it is absolutely something that no one else at the clinic can handle. My rationale was that, as a new graduate, I had the least experience in practice. Clearly, whichever doctor is working that day can handle any issues without my input. Unless specifically related to me or anticipated, I simply do not take work calls. This is a firm boundary that I set at any practice I worked at.
Commence the eye roll.
I know, I know. This is not how things are typically done in our profession. How many times have we heard a colleague talk about how they come into the office every single day, have no days off, and certainly don’t take vacations? Or how they always make themselves available, ready to come in at the drop of a hat?
We live in a society that accuses you of not being a team player, of having a poor work ethic, of not wanting to learn, or of lacking passion when you are not accessible 24/7. I strongly believe that this mindset is one of the main contributors to burnout in our profession.
One of my favorite mantras is “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” You need your days off to recharge, relax, live, and refill your cup. Depriving yourself of that may lead to burnout. When that happens, are you truly able to give your patients the best care you can?
When I am at work, I am on. I give my patients, my supervisor, my clients, and my staff my full energy and attention. But I also ensure that my days off are my days off. Why are we made to feel as though we are not allowed to do the same for ourselves or our family when we are off work?
Boundaries should also exist at work
Days off protected, check. But what about workdays?
Boundaries are not just limited to days off. Boundaries should also exist while at work. If you feel like your work environment is hostile or the workload is not being shared or you are overwhelmed, then say something! One of the most important things you can do is not be afraid to speak up for yourself.
Too many times, I have listened to colleagues vent about their work environment, and my first question is “have you said something?” This typically elicits a response of “no,” followed by a fear of being viewed negatively. Which in turn brings up another unfortunate mindset in our society — one that labels a person who speaks up as being soft, fragile, or a whiner. I challenge that idea.
Examples of boundaries you might discuss with your direct supervisor:
- the length of certain appointments
- a limit on walk-ins and double bookings
- time blocked off for lunch and call backs
- a time by which you must leave the clinic
- or whatever other areas are impacting your stress level
Stand up for yourself when boundaries are crossed
Due to the negative connotation attached to it, standing up for yourself and voicing your boundaries proves challenging. It is, however, one of the most necessary actions you can take to protect your mental health. By not speaking up, you could be perpetuating a hostile work environment. If attention is never brought to a pattern of behaviors, how can the behaviors be fixed?
It is not uncommon to come into a hospital where the staff has worked there for years. A negative behavior may be obvious to you – the newcomer – but may have become so commonplace that the supervisors and staff may not even realize there is a problem. In instances like these, there have been times where I have been thanked for speaking up, and I have been able to witness positive changes. This is not an easy thing to do and may feel uncomfortable at first, but in the long run, it will be beneficial.
Remember that standing up for yourself does not mean to be aggressive or inflammatory – this should always be done respectfully and diplomatically.
Boundaries between your social life and work life
Yes, you DO need boundaries in your social life! This one is for my fellow Millennials and Gen-Zs. Yep. That’s right. Gather around, my lovely generation, and listen up. You do not have to (or in my opinion need to) be friends on social media with your coworkers – and especially not your clients. This was one of the first major boundaries I set before I went into practice.
When I first graduated, the rule was made to not accept any friend requests or follows from anyone I work with. My reasoning was simple – I believe in keeping my work life and my social life separate. As is the nature of humanity, not everyone agrees on everything, and nothing strikes up more discord or negative emotion than how people choose to live their life. Political, religious, lifestyle, or even cultural viewpoints, people tend to have very firm opinions on how they think others should live.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “The way I live my life has nothing to do with my work and shouldn’t be treated that way.”
Listen, I whole-heartedly agree with that statement, and I sincerely hope that one day it will be embraced by the majority. However, as of right now, that is not the case. The unfortunate reality is that your personal life can affect your work life. Your personal views can create a hostile work environment. Your social media posts can affect the way your clients and co-workers feel about you.
I’m telling you – it’s not worth it. I have seen work environments go from chummy to battleground all because of social media. I, myself, caved a little on this rule at one point, and it eventually backfired. I know you may foster a feeling of family at work, but even actual family members need boundaries. And just say no to accepting clients as friends. I have had many wonderful clients, even some I have related to beyond their pets, but it is always better to keep that relationship professional.
You — yes, you — can do this
Boundaries can be molded to your individual scenario. If you are an intern, resident, practice owner, or a food animal veterinarian, getting called on your “off-days” usually just comes with the territory. This article is meant to provide you examples of healthy boundaries and emphasize the benefits of establishing them. Create boundaries to enhance your quality of life and to reduce preventable stressors.
I get it. This can be one of the most challenging things for someone to do.
However, when a study finds that 59% of veterinarians would not recommend our career to a family or friend (3), something must change. View boundaries as an essential step to start changing the narrative of our beloved profession.
- Nett, Randal J. et al “Risk factors for suicide, attitudes toward mental illness, and practice-related stressors among US veterinarians” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association vol. 247, 8 (2015): 945-955
- Tomasi, Suzanne E. “Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association vol. 254,1 (2019): 104-112
- 3. Gyles, Carlton. “Surprising new findings on veterinarians’ mental health and well-being.” The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 59,10 (2018): 1041-1043.