Monday, January 18, 2016

Do we look after ourselves as well as we expect owners to look after their animals? Or, how many times a day does a vet pee?

This is the snack stash at our work. If you don't bring a decent lunch, it can be a tempting beacon of sugar. 

Last week, I read this article by Dr Nikki Stamp revealing things we didn’t know about doctors. You can read the full article here. Dr Stamp reveals, for example, that most doctors are so overworked they only have time to pee once a day (which is probably why this chart is often found in the toilets in medical and vet clinics). And they eat worse than they should, usually while walking, standing or writing up case notes, because they are so time poor.

Sound familiar?

Finally, I thought, someone is talking about the gulf between the recommendations of health care practitioners, and their behaviour – telling people to look after themselves, then not following suit; telling people to eat better, then doing the opposite.  I was waiting for the clarion call for health professionals to recognise this gulf and do something about it.

But the article ended on different note. Instead, the last point Stamp makes is “Doctors love their jobs. We have to. It’s an emotional, intellectual and hard ride. If we didn’t love it, we couldn’t be here.”

And that, my friends, is the crux of the problem. Somehow, in the medical and I daresay the veterinary profession, suffering is glorified. The reader is invited to think, “oh wow, my doctor can’t even go to the loo when they want to, they lay awake at night fretting about me, they probably didn’t even get a lunch break and they’ve missed dozens of family events so they can look after me.” 

In teaching hospitals, students and residents are expected to work for sometimes very long hours. Working a 36 hour shift is almost seen as an induction, a badge of honour. That continues through one's career. Poor self-care is painted as the sacrifice one makes to tend to everyone else. It is almost implied – certainly if not in Stamp’s article then in the behaviour of some doctors and vets – that a good carer works themselves to the bone.

But who, of all people, know that this is an unsustainable approach to life? People who look after others!!! The question should be who does their best work when they exhausted, hungry, emotionally distraught over a patient or stressed? Or busting for a pee??? The answer is (probably) no one. Sure there might be exceptions to the rule. There are some days we just get hammered. Yet there is an incredible irony in recommending a healthy lifestyle choice, whether to a patient or companion animal owner, when we are role-modelling a slippery-slope to burnout.

Having lived and worked like this, and realising how absolutely draining it is, I’ve come to the realisation that if I am going to tell those who live with companion animals that their animals need good nutrition, regular exercise, regular toilet breaks, mental stimulation and regular health checks, I need to make sure I provide those things not only for the non-humans in my life, but myself.

ABC health journalist Sophie Scott wrote about a similar epiphany, on her blog:

While writing and reporting on public health, I have been too busy to exercise regularly, drank too many champagnes and wine “it helps thin the blood right?” And had to put work commitments above my family, friends and even myself. Leading vulnerability researcher Brene Brown sums it up perfectly in her latest book ‘Dare Greatly’. It’s called ‘minding the gap,’ as she describes it. Minding the gap is the disconnection between values that are important to you and how you are living your actual life, day to day.
You can read the full post here

Closing that gap means looking after ourselves better. I am not aware of any studies comparing the performance of well-hydrated, sated, well-rested health professionals versus those that aren’t, but I wonder – given the responsibilities of those caring for the health of others – if it would even be approved by an ethics committee?

For me, this has meant a few changes.

  • Planning meals and snacks ahead of time so I am not surviving on chocolate (of which there always seems to be an abundance in vet clinics). NB changing my diet has eliminated this source of temptation by forcing me to be extra-mindful about what I eat.
  • Signing up to a gym to make myself accountable for actually showing up to exercise – and protecting that time like a lion.
  • Succumbing to the realisation that I need to go to bed early to function.

Do you think vets, vet nurses and vet students do self-care well? How can we do it better? You might also be interested in this post on burn out and depression in the veterinary profession.