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Avoiding Veterinarian Burnout in 2023: Four steps to take

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The start of a new year is a time when we are conditioned to think about life improvements. For many this may be simply about losing a few pounds but for practicing veterinarians the focus on health and well-being has never been so vital.  

Last year ended with the tragic news of three colleague suicides in three weeks. Coupled with the recent finding that the suicide rate for vets is 4x the national UK average, there is an urgent question to be answered. How can mental and physical health be improved within the profession?  

Help and advice is emerging.

Anonymous online support is available on the Vetlife Helpline (0303 040 2551).  The charity Not One More Vet (NOMV) provides education, resources and support for the mental health of the veterinary profession and the Wellvet platform offers a wealth of health information.  

But, in a typical 12 hour working day or night, all the information in the world may not be enough. The real blocks to protecting and improving health are often not a lack of knowledge.  

It might be that feeling of a solo crusade. It’s not easy to get out your carefully chosen piece of fruit when everyone else is diving into the “thank you” chocolates. And it’s certainly not easy to take a moment outside for fresh air when there is a queue of clients and the practice ethos is to work through breaks.  

There can also be a sense of overwhelm. An inability to see how anything extra gets squeezed into the day. When does time for meditation arise when you are constantly bombarded with paperwork and phone calls in between consults and ops? Where does the energy for that mood boosting workout come from after you’ve been de-horning, paring foot abscesses or bending over a theatre table all day? How can you eat the recommended daily number of fruits and veggies in a mindful fashion when you never get a lunch break and rely on back room biscuits or service station sandwiches to get through?

The thought of adding more into an already exhausting day can feel at best daunting and at worst impossible.   

By combining my experience as an Equine Vet and a Health Coach, I’ve compiled four steps to help you prioritise your health whilst being in practice. These steps are based on extensive research from The Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University conducted by Professor B J Fogg. They are summarised below and presented in a downloadable guide to help you avoid burnout.

Step 1: Decide which healthy behaviours you really want.

As Albert Ellis wisely said “Don’t should on yourself.” Don’t resolve to make a salad for your lunch to improve eating habits at work if you don’t want the hassle of food prep after a long day on your feet.  

Instead think, what health promoting activity would I enjoy doing? An outdoor walk or relaxing breathing practice? Perhaps a stretching routine to ease your hard-working back or a gratitude list to help buffer those extra stressful days? Think broadly and most importantly, think personally. 

Remember, something that resonates with a colleague, YouTuber or podcaster won’t always, and certainty doesn’t have to, be for you.  

Step 2: Make your behaviours tiny

An hour of meditation, 30 minutes of pilates, 40 minutes of reading.  It might seem doable in the planning stage, but in reality? With one bad night on call, one sick family member or one difficult case on your mind, motivation can vanish.  

By scaling down you can start and maintain your new behaviour and build confidence in your ability to follow through.  As this confidence grows, so can your behaviour. Two minutes of daily pilates can extend to five minutes and maybe a longer session when time allows. By setting the initial bar really low the habit is kept alive. Two minutes is usually doable even with life’s disruptions, twenty minutes, much less so.  

I saw this so acutely in my own life that I decided to certify as a Tiny Habits Health Coach and help others change their lives using this principle. I went from five minutes of Joe Wicks workouts in my pyjamas every morning to running ultra marathons. In the beginning, juggling rotas, certificate study and two young kids, I had zero enthusiasm or energy for exercise. But, by starting “tiny” and building up slowly I have naturally become someone who maintains an exercise habit. It is simply part of who I am.

Step 3: Anchor your behaviours

Surviving the day as a practicing vet is often exhausting. The mental and physical challenges involved can leave you wiped out. Even when you have chosen a habit you love and made it really small, it can still be hard to remember to actually do it! 

Linking your new behaviour to something you do automatically helps protect against this. Some examples I have seen work brilliantly include:

  • After brushing your teeth  – do three shoulder rolls 
  • After closing the consult room door – take three deep breaths 
  • After flushing the toilet – do 3 squats
  • After turning off the car engine – message one friend
  • After filling up with petrol – think about the piece of fruit to eat instead of buying a snack
  • After getting into your pajamas – do two minutes of pilates exercises

Finding a consistent space in your day takes the hassle out of trying to decide when you will do your new habit and avoids ending the day in frustration.

Step 4: Celebrate your behaviours

As naturally high achieving people, vets often find it hard to feel good about doing a “tiny” thing.  And, whilst their days and nights are spent caring for clients and their animals, showing compassion for themselves is notoriously neglected.  

But ignore this step at your peril!  

My favourite quote by Professor B J Fogg explains why; “People change best when they feel good about themselves.”  

Taking a moment to appreciate the positive steps you are taking each time will make it more likely you keep going.  Not only will this keep your habit alive, it will help it grow.  

This isn’t always easy on your own.  As the pressures of the day or night build, your two minutes of breathing or stretching exercises can be forgotten or dismissed.  Making a conscious effort to celebrate your behaviour straight afterwards is important, especially in the early stages of habit formation.  Getting support from a friend or working with a coach can also be extremely helpful to add accountability and to help you recognise your progress.  

Summary

If you are serious about prioritising your health and well-being this year but don’t know where you will ever find the time or energy, ask yourself; What do I want to do?  How can I make a tiny version of this?  What would be the best action to anchor it to?  Am I recognising the benefits and feeling good about this? And finally, what kind of support do I need to ensure I follow through? 

Improving your health doesn’t have to be overwhelming or stressful.  By following these steps you can build positive, health promoting behaviours into your daily life and enjoy a long, successful career in an often stressful industry.  I’ve seen it happen repeatedly in my own life and in the clients I have coached.  I hope, now, you will see it in your own life.  

For further inspiration and help with planning your healthy behaviours, download A Practical  Guide to Avoiding Veterinarian Burnout.  

Further Reading

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. B J Fogg, PhD. 2019. Virgin Books, London.

Vetlife Helpline on 0303 040 2551 or email anonymously via www.vetlife.org.uk