Use the cycle below to prioritize your mental health and ensure that your empathy isn't causing you to overextend yourself.
We hear about the importance of striking a healthy work-life balance all the time, but what does that look like in action? Finding this balance looks slightly different for everyone, but certain tips and tricks are helpful across the board. One of the most important things to remember is that work-life balance is a moving target. Balancing your professional and personal life isn't a matter of one-time mastery; instead, it requires you to learn an important cycle of checking in with yourself, setting boundaries, and making adjustments to those boundaries as needed. Learning this cycle is particularly necessary for those working in highly empathetic fields like veterinary medicine.
Mastering the work-life balance cycle
Step One: Get in touch with your body and emotions. Stress and burnout look different for everyone, and learning to identify the ways that they manifest in you is the first step in the work-life balance cycle. Stress and burnout can present as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, heightened emotions such as crying easily or losing your temper quickly, numbness, muscle tension, loss of focus, fatigue, disinterest in things that typically bring you joy... The list of anxiety symptoms is a long one, but with practice and careful attention, you can learn to identify your personal signs of stress as soon as they appear, and engage in tactics to manage them.*
Step Two: Find the root of the problem(s). Once you've identified your body's telltale signs that you're stressed or overworked, it's time to explore the reasons why. Grab a pen and paper and write down a physical list, and avoid using broad generalities such as "work." What specifically about work is causing you stress? Is it needy clients? Missing out on family events due to work, or working too many shifts because you find it hard to say no? Feeling like you're never truly able to unplug from work? Emotional burnout from dealing with sick patients? Specifically honing in on the parts of your life or job that cause you to feel burned out and anxious is essential to enacting step three: setting boundaries.
Step Three: Setting boundaries. After creating your list of specific stressors, it's time to start managing them. For many, beginning to set boundaries is the hardest part of adopting the work-life balance cycle, and it's unfortunately the part that's the most unique to each individual. While we can't tell you exactly what your boundaries should look like, below are some examples based on the stressors listed in step two. It's important to note that boundaries can be set up not just with others, but with yourself.
- Feeling unable to unplug. Don't bring work home with you, no matter how tempting it might be. Sit down with your employer and see if you can negotiate time in your schedule to complete charts and return calls. Unless your job requires you to be on-call for emergency scenarios, set a strict no-clients policy during your off-hours. Do not provide your personal phone number to clients. If your employer is encouraging you to stay plugged in after you've left the clinic, don't be afraid to explain to them how important it is for you to have that personal time away. (or something along those lines- I think it should be a little less aggressive than telling your boss this is unacceptable).
- Emotional burnout. Set a boundary for how you process hard visits. If you've just finished euthanizing an elderly pet and you're scheduled to head straight into another appointment, it's okay to take a minute or two to yourself between visits and sit in the breakroom. While this short break won't magically erase the hardship of euthanizing an older pet or consoling a client, taking a few moments to breathe and process before walking into your next appointment make it easier to process difficult visits in the long run.
- Needy/upset clients. Needy clients often want to call and talk to veterinarians all the time, not really wanting advice or information relayed through support staff. If these clients demand too much time, often they need to be told that they should send non-urgent questions via email or set up an appointment with the veterinarian if they wish to speak with the vet directly. Avoid letting one client drain your time to the point that you can’t focus on your other patients.
- Missing family events/Taking on too many shifts. Learn to get comfortable saying no, and do your best not to feel guilty for putting your wellness and family first. If guilt has you wondering if you should backtrack and take those shifts after all, be firm with yourself and remember that you're committing to putting yourself first.
Step Four: Ride the cycle and make adjustments. On any given day, your work stressors might look different. It might be any one of the reasons that we mentioned in step two, or a combination of them, or something else entirely. Life is inherently changeable. No two workdays will ever be identical, which means that your boundaries will have to shift and adapt as your situation changes. This means that the true key to balancing your personal and professional lives is having the ability to roll with the punches and alter your boundaries as needed.
Learning to identify which boundaries you need to create and how and when to adjust them takes practice and a considerable amount of patience. You aren't perfect, and no one should expect you to be. Be gentle with yourself, remember to be your own best friend, and don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Using the steps in the work-life balance cycle might not be a magical, stress-banishing cure-all, but it can drastically reduce symptoms of anxiety and overwork while increasing contentment both at home and in the clinic.
*Stress management tips come in all shapes and sizes. A few worth exploring are mindfulness tools, getting enough exercise, talking to friends and family, and seeking professional assistance from a therapist or psychologist. If you're experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek emergency treatment or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.