Coping skills becoming shallow?

Coping skills becoming shallow?

Before burnout sends you off the deep end, consider a few creative ways to lessen your stress and help you enjoy your work again.
Mar 01, 2010

Dr. Jennifer Koehl
Our profession doesn't do us many favors. We work long hours. We deal with difficult—sometimes very difficult—clients. Heartbreaking situations enter our doors every day. It can just become too much.

Recent comments on my blog posts at have touched on a pervasive yet rarely discussed subject: burnout. No courses in vet school taught us how to deal with this. I suppose we're expected to suck it up and deal with it. That doesn't sit well with me as I see excellent veterinarians bail on their careers, families, or—worse—lives in response to the stress.

Burnout has many causes. The long workday alone can lead to mental fatigue. Add in middle-of-the-night emergency calls, and you've got physical fatigue to boot. Practice owners' lives are even more harried. In their "down time," they must make financial decisions for the practice, handle upset clients, and manage personnel.

Every veterinarian has a different primary stressor. For some of us, it's the difficult clientele who demand so much of our time that we fall behind schedule. For others it's compassion fatigue. As acclimated as we veterinarians are to pain, suffering, and death, we're never quite comfortable with it. I still have patients who break my heart and make me cry. Compassion fatigue alone can be enough to lead a veterinarian to burnout.

For other veterinarians, stress comes from balancing the desire to provide optimal care with a client's financial considerations. Rare is the veterinarian who hasn't heard, "I can't afford any of that. If you cared, you'd give it to me for free." These difficult situations are only magnified by the aforementioned physical and mental fatigue.

Finally, toxic work environments are another major cause of burnout. Viral personalities, unyielding bosses, and unreasonable hours can all sink our morale, causing small issues to become large and feeding stress and angst. In these cases, we've often got to instigate change ourselves.

So what do we do about it? More vacation, fewer hours? That would certainly help. Do we leave our jobs? For some of us that's feasible, for others it's not. If you can't take extreme measures, here are some creative ways to lessen the daily stress:

> Don't sweat the small stuff. Seriously. Those little things add up.

> Remember that some clients won't like you and won't listen to you no matter what you do.

> Focus on your favorite clients—the ones who bring you food, remember you during the holidays, and always thank you for your time.

> Eat healthy, exercise, don't smoke, and get enough sleep. You know this. Now actually do it.

> Stop micromanaging. It creates more work. If a job isn't getting done, it could be a personnel issue.

> Use your vacation time.

> Make your CE time count, especially if you can't take vacation. If you can swing it, take one of those exotic CE courses in the Caribbean or Central America.

> Say no. Believe it or not, you can refuse to pick up that extra day or run a bake sale for the kids.

> Don't be afraid to work part time. There is no shame in cutting your hours to maintain a family balance.

> Find a hobby that gets you out of the house. Fresh air does wonders for the soul.

> See your doctor. If you're experiencing severe fatigue, make sure nothing else is going on!