Work Life Balance Expectations for Veterinarians

Take time to determine what is important to you—then make changes to align your actions to match your values.
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Work-life balance has been at the forefront of people’s attention in the last few years, but achieving balance is a goal that can be elusive. What exactly is life balance? It is difficult to define, because work-life balance means something a little different to everyone.

Over time, thoughts and discussion about work-life balance have been evolving, and there are often generational differences in what that means among the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials.

Of the Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1960, many were exposed to their family’s financial hardships. Making a decent living was diffcult, so this generation craved stability in the workplace and highly valued the opportunity for employment. Because of this, work-life balance wasn’t a main priority or concern—having a good job was!

Among early Boomers, companies often employed people for their entire careers, and the majority of the workforce was male. Women tended to be homemakers. Later Boomers experienced the opening of opportunities for women who tried to “have it all.”

As the children of the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1980, grew up witnessing the long hours and poor work-life balance of their parents. Many Gen Xers were exposed to the effect that commitment to work had on the family unit, with many marriages ending in divorce. As a result, this generation put more emphasis on creating work-life balance in their own lives. Many prioritize spending time with their families and are more likely to fully utilize their vacations than the Baby Boomers. Gen Xers tend to think of good work-life balance as essential.

Millennials, born between the years of 1981 and 2000, have grown up in an era of uncertainty, where terrorist attacks, company layoffs and increasing wage inequities have been pivotal. Life is uncertain, tragic things happen and working hard might not pay off. This generation seeks to make the world a better place and have their work be meaningful. They face the harshest student loan burden in history, might have difficulty finding stable, well-paying employment and understand they will be responsible for their own retirement. In many cases, they value making a difference more than making money, and they stay focused on living life fully in the present. Having time to do things they care about is a priority, whether at work or outside of it.

Defining Work-Life Balance

Equine veterinarians shared their feelings about the definition of work-life balance on the Facebook pages Women in Equine Practice and Equine Vet 2 Vet.

“My work is part of my life, and I love it,” said Dr. Bibi Freer. “I love my clients and my patients, and my job enriches my life. But I also need to have a week at the beach with my parents, brother, sister, their children, etc. I like to go to a party or to dinner with my husband in the same car (not the vet truck). I like to sit on the porch with friends, my banjo and my dog, and go camping with friends.”

Dr. Alex Wyle Eastman wrote, “It is so difficult to define, because it is different for everyone, and, even more tricky, it is different for each of us at different times in our lives (sometimes different from day to day). I think the key is to build in some flexibility to accommodate these shifts. The big issue is when we feel we are pulled from every direction—not enough hours in the day—and we feel like we are needed by all and letting everyone down. Jack of all problems, master of none.

“But that changes with the needs of our family, our health, our own mental state, the specific demands of our friends/clients/co-workers. When things are good with my kids and our family is on autopilot, work demands don’t bother me at all.

“I spend a lot of time trying to save young equine vets from themselves, trying to keep them from burning out and working too hard. Sometimes I have to realize that I’m seeing it through my lens and not theirs. Maybe at this time working is what is feeding them, and they are loving it. So long as they have the flexibility to scale back or take time away, maybe that’s OK. We’re trying to build a model that encourages balance, but more importantly, I don’t want people to feel trapped. I’d like them to have colleagues they trust to hand cases over to and the flexibility to work more or less as the rest of their lives unfold.” 

In another response, Dr. Tania Sundra shared a numbered list of suggestions to achieve balance:

  1. Design a lifestyle based on the things that you value, or someone else will design one for you.
  2. It’s up to us as individuals to take control and have responsibility for the types of lives we want to lead.
  3. Creating balance doesn’t necessarily mean a major change has to occur. Small changes in the right places matter.
  4. Don’t try to do too many things at once. Constantly trying to multi-task can be draining. Choose tasks that deserve your full attention, and execute them with the focus they deserve. This applies to both work and personal time.

The First Myth

As Nigel Marsh explained at the beginning of his talk at the 2017 AAEP Convention, there are three myths about work-life balance.

The first myth, he said, is that work-life balance is “soft,” indulgent, not truly serious, and not a life-and-death concern.

To the contrary, he said, it is absolutely serious, and that is made very clear in the veterinary profession by the high rate of depression and suicide. That said, he stated that the biggest risk in having poor balance is that a person will have a “living death.”

The Second Myth

According to Marsh, the second myth is that work-life balance is not possible in your profession. No matter whether a person is a politician, a banker, a doctor or in the military, each thinks that his or her profession is special in its requirements and stress.

But, in fact, achieving balance is about attitude, not the external things. “Your profession is not uniquely hard; it is uniquely different,” he said. You can choose, he insisted. It is a crisis of choice and imagination, not circumstances.

The Third Myth

The third myth is that if you want to get to the top of your profession, this is just the price that must be paid. However, Marsh said that many of the most successful CEOs are those with the best balance, and that there is evidence that shows rest and recovery drives creativity and productivity.

Despite these ideas, equine veterinary medicine, especially for those in solo practice, requires a 24/7/365 commitment to clients and patients. That commitment sometimes is met by sharing duty in a group practice where no doctor is considered a “silo,” by sharing emergency responsibilities with a group of regional colleagues or by choosing a niche (e.g., integrative medicine, dentistry) that rarely requires after-hours care. But the burden remains. In the competitive areas of the country where equine veterinarians are numerous, practitioners worry that if they are not personally available at all times, their practices will suffer for it. Developing boundaries that support your values is essential.

Dr. Berkeley Chesen posted on Women in Equine Practice: “My career has taken precedence over most of the rest of my life for a very long time. I love my job, but my kids, husband and friends love me back, whereas clients tend to be much more of a one-way relationship.

“Not saying they shouldn’t be self-serving, but they need to respect the fact I’m human. I guarantee if I disappeared tomorrow, their biggest concern would be getting ‘X’ done on their horse and who is available to take care of it. I guess I would say it’s about teamwork with your colleagues and figuring out how to make it fair for all, regardless of who has kids.”

Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be a good start to carving out time for yourself. Consider putting limits on the hours during which you will respond to routine text messages or phone calls from clients. Communicating your boundaries cheerfully will often nudge clients into realizing that you do have a life outside of veterinary medicine, and most will be supportive.

Practice owners can lead by example in fostering good boundaries. It is important to remember that the senior team members’ behavior shapes the culture and the practice norms.

For an employer, promoting work-life balance can seem a daunting challenge. How can a practice promote a healthy lifestyle, both physically and emotionally, while meeting the demands of a busy practice? Creating a flexible work environment is one of the best ways to satisfy the balance needs of most employees—regardless of the generation to which they belong. Choices and flexibility have been shown to decrease stress, boost levels of job satisfaction and help people maintain healthier habits. Employers might other flexible work hours, the ability to leave work early in slow months, and generous time off.

By prioritizing a healthy culture and cultivating a cheerful workplace environment, balance can be achieved in veterinary practices. By creating conditions that encourage employees to feel proud of their roles, where work feels more like a second home and less like working for a paycheck, practices can enhance their team’s well-being. Competitive compensation, comfortable working conditions, opportunities for professional growth and close social connections all contribute to this balance.

AVMA Well-being Summit

In April 2018, the AVMA hosted a Well-being Summit to provide practical resources and strategies to enable participants, ranging from academicians and students to practitioners, to establish a culture of well-being in their workplaces and throughout the profession.

Jen Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of member well-being and diversity initiatives, said well-being is a holistic process, not an event.

Well-being in the workplace means personal happiness—feeling good, feeling healthy, and working safely and productively.

The emphasis is on a life well-lived, looking at the whole person. Brandt said that a culture of well-being helps attract top talent, brings out the best in employees and increases employee retention, engagement and satisfaction. Priorities

If you struggle with life balance, one way to illuminate the changes that you might need is to take an hour to sit quietly and think about what is most important to you. Rank the parts of your life by importance; are you spending your time accordingly? Consider whether you are “walking your talk” in terms of:

  • career
  • financial success
  • family and friends
  • spouse/partner health
  • personal growth and fulfillment
  • spirituality
  • contribution to the world

If you find that you have been neglecting the things that mean the most to you, make a vow to make one small change each month.

Marsh stated in his AAEP address that work-life balance is not an intellectual problem. It must be solved in real life, and real life is messy. He recommended being realistic and understanding that life stages create constant change. In addition, all industries have some unchanging realities, so if you are trying to change things that cannot be changed, you need to understand that this path leads to frustration. Concentrate on changing the things you can change.

Take-Home Message

Balancing the many different aspects of your life requires understanding your values and priorities, then making changes that align what you care about most with your actions.

Your needs will change during the different stages of your life, whether to care for children and/or parents, pursue personal goals or maintain strong relationships with family and friends. By collaborating with other veterinarians and building flexibility into your practice, you can carve out time to have a full and joyful life. 

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