Feeling trapped? Consider your options BEFORE the nervous breakdown
Dr. Stephanie Rains* graduated from veterinary school a few years ago and is $150,000 in debt. Her husband is stationed at a military base in a remote area, and she's the primary breadwinner. She’s the only associate at a veterinary practice where she splits emergencies with the boss and she’s working 60 hours a week. To top it off, she has a new baby and is utterly exhausted. No surprise, she's feeling trapped. In fact, she’s about to have some kind of breakdown—and she knows it.
We posed this scenario to Karen Bradley, DVM, a leader with the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, to ask how she would counsel this young doctor. While the details often differ, this story is far from rare, Bradley says—she has met a number of veterinarians in similar situations.
"The biggest thing I tell them is, 'You never don’t have other options,' " Bradley says. Rains has to remember that she is that practice owner's option too.
"Make your needs known," Bradley says. "We assume others know our needs, but they don’t always know we’re suffering, that we’re up at night with the baby. Make your needs known, and ask for help finding balance."
Finding a support network also helps. "One of the biggest cathartic moments is when you realize that others understand what you're going through, that they have been there and have your back," Bradley says. It's up to you, though, to take the first step in reaching out.
We asked Bradley whether this struggle for work-life balance is a new phenomenon. "It certainly feels like there's more of this going on, that we are experiencing a generational and gender clash," she says. "More women and early-career veterinarians are needing life accommodations."
Today's practice owners, who often fall into the baby boomer or Generation X category, feel they put their blood, sweat and tears in to get where they are, Bradley continues. In turn, those owners might put pressure on younger veterinarians to “pay their dues.”
"Early-career veterinarians want value from their work, but don't want work to be all-consuming," Bradley says.
If you're in this situation—either as the associate or practice owner—the first step is to have a talk. "If you're the early career veterinarian, present your needs to the practice owner in context of what the clinic needs," Bradley suggests. "Say, 'I recognize that the clinic needs a veterinarian on duty until a certain until time each day.' Let the owner know you are willing to stay late half the time, but that the other days you will need a hard stop when you leave on time. This shows your commitment to the practice needs as well as fills your own."
Constrained by contract
Noncompete clauses in employee contracts, while oftentimes necessary to protect business interests, also serve as chains that can bind a bit too tight. Bradley often counsels veterinarians that options exist even in these situations.
"You have to find a way around the contract," she says. "Sometimes there are ways to amicably leave a job and find another line of work. For instance, if you’re in a day practice and it isn't meeting your needs, you could work at the emergency clinic, take a different rate of pay, or work different shifts so your noncompete won’t apply. If there's no way around it, you might need to make a career transition."
That doesn't mean abandoning veterinary medicine. It just might look different for a little while. For example, you could do online consulting or something else besides practicing medicine. "We were taught from day one in veterinary school to get creative with our veterinary degrees and not to feel like there's only one niche we are stuck in," Bradley says.
To get a few ideas on alternative veterinary careers, read this article.
When burnout strikes
Sometimes, of course, burnout rears its ugly head and you just have to make a change. But Bradley warns that you need to determine whether you’re experiencing compassion fatigue or true burnout. "You can come back from compassion fatigue, using time away, therapy, meditation to regain empathy or other good strategies," she says. "But true burnout is when you become toxic in the profession. That’s the ultimate time when you need to transition."
To determine whether you're experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout, Bradley suggests taking an online analysis, such as the three found here: www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/selftest.html. (See this article for another perspective.)
"Anymore, a career is more of a jungle gym than a ladder," Bradley says. "If you're burnt out, you can move around, not just up." For example, she suggests looking into roles in organized veterinary medicine, stepping into the humane society realm, getting an MBA to move into a new role, or researching public health options.
Most importantly, she says, make sure you look into changes before you hit true burnout whenever possible. With more women entering the profession—an estimated 70 percent of veterinarians in the country will be female by 2030, she says—there will be a bigger need for work-life balance. And with a struggle for work-life balance comes an increased risk for depression and suicide—regardless of gender. "We have to find ways to combat this overworked profession," Bradley says. "It’s OK to admit we need help. Let's take away the stigma."
*Not her real name. Stephanie Rains is a composite of several common stories we posed to Bradley.