Life balance: How to keep your flame burning

Life balance: How to keep your flame burning

You can't give all of yourself away at the veterinary practice or you'll wind up with nothing left. Learn helpful coping skills to stay happy and healthy at the animal hospital.
Mar 01, 2011

As a veterinarian, you're required to be many things to many people. You're a devoted medical caretaker for patients. You're an advisor and support system for clients. And on many days you're an impromptu counselor, working closely with pet owners who are filled with grief at the thought of losing the animal members of their families.

With such an important mission, you can expect to feel overwhelmed. You're spending your inner energy reserves maintaining your professionalism, proving your medical competence, and getting along with your team day in, day out. But you may be spending so much of yourself on your job that you forget about the other things in life you hold dear. This results in compassion fatigue—the feeling that you've given it your all and have no more to share.

Compassion fatigue can happen to anyone, but beware its more sinister companion: burnout. If your work has become too much, it's time to explore the problem—and seek solutions. Turn your attention back to the other parts of your life to reinvigorate and sustain your work in your practice. You may even know some of these strategies already. Let this be a reminder to actually use them.


Compassion fatigue can leave you—and team members—feeling irritable, incompetent, despairing, and hopeless. In the throes of soul-sucking compassion fatigue, you may dread coming to work, experience sleeplessness or nightmares at night, or be plagued by flashbacks of traumatic events at the clinic. You may lose interest in the activities you used to enjoy. The fact is that compassion fatigue is quite common in medical fields, including veterinary medicine. Strangely enough, it's your love that puts you at risk. In one study, volunteers and veterinary professionals who loved their jobs and the work they did turned out to be most at risk.

Inherent in the treatment of pets and their human family members is the fact that patients and clients can be quite needy. You've experienced both sides. An animal whose diagnosis is particularly difficult, and its owner who calls three or more times a day to ask for updates. Unfortunately, the owner also vents for 20 minutes about fears about the pet's health and frustrations at your inability to find the problem and fix it. You're polite, but calls like these become frustrating over days and weeks of difficult cases.

Patients and pet owners can overuse your nurturing capacities. The remedy is to set appropriate boundaries and acknowledge the struggles between what you want to do and what you can do. In the example above, the veterinarian could affirm the pet owner's fears but remind her that time spent talking is time that could be used to take care of the patient. Setting limits is crucial for you to maintain your sanity as well as your enthusiasm for your job.