Some may argue that if you love what you do, it does not matter how much you work.
I tend to disagree with that. In veterinary medicine, it is easy to get caught up in your career, to wake up one day and realize that is has engulfed you, that it defines you. Who are you if not a veterinarian? We work what can seem like endless hours. Our careers consume our identity and tip the scales of our work-life balance and cause us to struggle.
It is no secret that veterinary professions are significantly more likely than the general population to commit suicide.
With increased psychological distress, feelings of hopelessness, and widespread compassion fatigue, something has to give. We need to spend more time away from the very thing that is destroying so many – our careers. There is more to our existence than just work.
Who am I?
We are not just veterinarians. We are artists, chefs, gardeners, photographers, travelers, hikers, and so much more. We are capable of achieving balance between our self and our rewarding careers. We do not have to allow our professions to completely consume and define us.
A total of 286 veterinarians responded to a survey about how they feel their state of work-life balance is, about how the pandemic has affected that.
They were asked a series of 7 questions related to gender, years in practice, current number of hours worked, primary field, how they felt about work-life balance in their current position, if the pandemic has negatively affected that, and what would improve their current work-life balance. Of the 286 respondents, only 17.8% strongly agreed that their current position allowed them to have good work-life balance. Another 55.9% agreed or somewhat agreed to the same statement. It is promising that most of the profession feels that they have at least an above average work-life balance but disheartening to see those dissatisfied with how their current career fits into the rest of their life. The majority of colleagues that fall within the 17.8% have been practicing 10+ years, are relief veterinarians, and are working 40 hours or less a week.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 4.2% of veterinarians that do not have good work-life balance are primarily in large, mixed, or small animal medicine, and work more than 40 hours a week. This same trend continues when expanded to include those that disagree or somewhat disagree that they have a good work-life balance.
It is well documented that increased time working, negatively impacts health. Studies have shown harmful impacts to cardiovascular health, increased substance abuse, sleep disorders, and poor mental health.2 Perceived poor work-life balance can inevitably lead to all these problems, thus ultimately diminishing quality of life.
Last year was difficult for everyone, but the veterinary profession seemed to be particularly battered by the pandemic. With everyone staying home and buying or adopting pets, many clinics saw and are still seeing, what seems like an endless number of appointments.
How to remedy? Time off.
The survey goes on to show that those who are unsatisfied with their current work-life balance generally want more time off, either in the form of paid vacation time or by working fewer days. Mental and physical health can be improved by having more time outside work. Having time to yourself allows for exploration of other interests and more enriching life experiences.
Show me the money?
That is not to say that you cannot maintain a healthy work-life balance if you work more than 40 hours a week. In fact, if you look at those that somewhat agreed, agreed, or strongly agreed that they have good-work life balance, 79 of 211 of them work 40 or more hours, with 5 of them working more than 60 hours a week. Of things said that would improve their work-life balance, increased pay wins out over more vacation time among those working the most.
Ok, COVID. Thanks for the curveball.
We know that increased time at work can negatively impact work-life balance, but what about the coronavirus pandemic?
Last year was difficult for everyone, but the veterinary profession seemed to be particularly battered by the pandemic. With everyone staying home and buying or adopting pets, many clinics saw and are still seeing, what seems like an endless number of appointments. Many clinics are booked out weeks in advance for new clients, an anomaly for the field.
This pandemic brought many team members to the point of burnout and exhaustion. Across the 15 clinics I worked for last year, I saw teams become progressively more stressed by the wake of the pandemic, from the ever-constant threat of becoming ill to rampant poor behavior by clients.
So where are we now?
My work-life balance took a hit, did yours? It often felt as though I were working on an endless loop of too many hours, that I was teetering on the edge of exhaustion, and that many clinics were looking to me for answers for how to make it better. Unfortunately, I had no magic solution for them.
Many colleagues feel the same, with nearly 54% reporting that the pandemic negatively impacted their work-life balance. Only 26% felt that they were not negatively impacted, and the remainder were neutral. It Is likely that the full impacts of the pandemic on this profession are yet to be seen, but it is clear the increased workloads and strain on mental and physical health has taken a toll on our work-life balance.
Where does that leave us, and what can we do to improve?
In the final question of the survey, colleagues were asked what could improve their work-life balance. They could choose from more paid vacation, fewer days with longer hours, more days with fewer hours, paid sick leave, an increase in pay, and other. More paid vacation was the top choice at 28%, but an increase in pay and other were closely behind. As discussed above, more time away and an increase in pay seems to be favored by those least and most satisfied with their current work-life balance, respectively.
For the 21.7% that chose other, which were 62 of the 286 respondents, what did they say? For many, it came down to less time spent working. Many wanted less on-call, to leave on time, and to not feel guilty for taking time off.
Another large portion was a combination of more time off and increase in pay. These respondents wanted their time off not to affect their pay, which is a concern for many on production-based pay. For most of the rest, it came down to staffing. Many clinics are feeling the squeeze of being short-staffed or being inefficiently run during a year when most clinics are doing whatever they can simply to stay above water with excess appointment requests.
We need to spend more time doing the things we love so that we can start to appreciate and re-learn to love what we do.
As a profession, we need to do a better job of meeting the needs of individuals. Not all employees necessarily want the same benefits when it comes time for that contract discussion. Some are going to value more time away whereas others want that raise you had planned to give. As associates, you need to be vocal about what you need from your employer. Do not be afraid to ask for more paid time off in lieu of that raise. Take care of yourself.
- Tomasi, S., et al. (January 2019). Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 104-112.
- Wong, K., et al. (June 2019). The Effect of Long Working Hours and Overtime on Occupational Health: A Meta-Analysis of Evidence from 1998 to 2018. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2102