Monday, June 29, 2015

What does it mean to be a veterinarian?

Even superheros are prone to burnout.

The topic of veterinary mental health has had a lot of airtime recently, thanks to greater awareness and genuine efforts of organisations (within and outside of the profession) to de-stigmatise mental health issues.

Last week US based companion animal veterinarian Dr DeanScott wrote a thought-provoking essay on why being a vet should not entail being a superhero (read the full essay here or see reference below). His aim was to give vets permission to be ordinary human beings when he feels there is a pressure for vets to be superheros.

It’s topical at SAT HQ at present due to our literal attempts to be just that – albeit not quite in the way Dr Scott is referring to. He’s not worrying about people running around in fancy dress (bring on that epidemic, please!). He’s concerned about people lining themselves up for the morbidity (and sometimes mortality) associated with professional burnout.

He persuasively argues that aiming to serve people and animals 24/7 is a recipe for burnout – and he’s right. It can be exhausting. He goes on to argue:
Ultimately, no matter what else, being a veterinarian is a job. You may call it a vocation or a career or a calling; it still comes down to being a job. I don’t define myself by my job. When I say I’m a veterinarian, it’s not who I am, but what I do.
One issue that has been raised by a number of people in our profession is the problems that start to occur when one cannot separate who one is from what one does. (You can listen to a fantastic podcast by veterinarian and consultant Dr Sarah Page-Jones about this very issue here). 

Sounds simple but what happens if something in your life changes and you can’t be a vet anymore? If what you do is who you are, that requires a total rehaul of one’s identity.

Dr Scott comes to the conclusion that his job is not exactly what he thought it would be.
I think we suffer from the realisation that many pet owners are not as invested in their pets as we thought when considering this profession. It can be very disheartening.
This, he argues, sets some people on a path of “veterinary heroism”, where some vets do more and more outside of work (spey clinics, animal rescue, volunteer work) to try to address the imbalance.
We want to be viewed as the good guys. We seem to think that the more we do for others in this profession – especially when we’re not compensated for it – the more the world will like us.
All of which can lead to burnout.

These are valid points, although I’ve been ruminating over this and have a couple of thoughts I’d like to throw in to the mix.

  • It depends where and how you practice. I have worked in some practices where, for social, economic and other reasons, I have cared more about animals than (a large percentage – maybe 30 per cent) of the owners have done. This is emotionally exhausting and advocating for animals in such a context can be like banging one’s head against a brick wall. But I work in a practice now where most of the owners care for their animals as I do my own. So much depends on our case load and that depends on the practice you work in and the way it is managed.
  • Extracurricular veterinary activities aren’t always done for altruistic reasons. The volunteer work I’ve done has given me an immense source of personal satisfaction, entertainment, travel to amazing destinations, the opportunity to make new friends, interaction with unusual and exotic species, the opportunity to get a different perspective on what I do, a source of continuing education, a break, a change of pace…I could go on. Most of my clients would not know I do this stuff, they just know I'm away from work. Some people need unstructured time to recharge. That just doesn’t work for some people. Sometimes doing something in a different context can be re-energising. There are also costs to consider - financial, emotional, time, risk of injury, fatigue and so forth. If the costs outweigh the benefits its not sustainable.
  • Work can be fun. One of my mentors constantly reminds me of this. There are moments of hilarity which occur at work and it’s important to acknowledge them with an appropriate guffaw. There's also the whole concept of can feel "in the zone" when one is absorbed in a routine surgery, for example. Its a luxury to focus on one task, get it finished, and see the result. Something that seems to happen less in less in this multitasking, information-overloaded world.
  • There are some fairly major differences of opinion about whether veterinarians belong to a profession, an industry, or both, and what this means in terms of personal identity. For some the notion of a lifelong vocation works just fine – for others it’s a disaster. It think, like any area of mental health, the answer is complex. For some people, a sense of belongingto a profession and identifying with their career might be a source of greatmeaning which may benefit their mental health, while for others it does not. And it may change depending on what is going on in your life.
  • The concept of work-life balance can be a source of stress, guilt and dissatisfaction for some people. For real. It is one of those terms that is bandied around and equated with well-being, but it doesn't work for everyone and that's okay.    

I agree with Dr Scott that, like anyone in any field, we need to focus less on comparing ourselves with others (I think it’s naive to think we can eliminate this tendency – we’re a social species after all) but more on working out what works for us. If extracurricular vet work floats your boat, go for it. If you need to clock off and rehearse for the air guitar championships or spend time with your family or devote hours to hobbies that have nothing to do with animals, that’s fine too.  Or you might personally prefer a combination of both.

One thing I learned when studying philosophy is that working out what constitutes a good life for each of us is not something you can achieve in a semester-long course on “living a good life”. It’s a life-long project. Working out how work fits in is part of an ongoing process.