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Have you ever experienced job burnout? I have, and it’s not pleasant. A number of years ago, I worked in a call center. Well, actually, several call centers. There are good centers and bad ones. The bad ones are every bit the horror story that people perceive them to be, with managers running around screaming “People, I need sales!” and offering ridiculous incentives – get a sale and take a ten minute break, or get a sale and win a dollar scratch ticket. In a good call center, you’ll have no trouble with management and no screaming managers, but at some point you can bet that the client that has hired your center to handle their sales or tech support will demand more than can reasonably be given, and misery will ultimately ensue.
The average “shelf life” of a call center worker is six months. I lasted ten years. Do you suppose I earned my burnout? You bet I did. Unrelenting pressure, low wages and lack of appreciation took their toll and I just had to get out.
Today, I refuse to answer the phone most of the time; that’s how bad it was. I remember sharing my home with someone else at one point, and we used to have conversations like this:
Roomie: The phone’s ringing – aren’t you going to answer it?
Roomie: What if it’s an emergency?
Me: Everything’s fine here; no emergencies.
Roomie: What if someone died?
Me: Dead people don’t make phone calls.
Roomie: No, really, what if it’s a family member calling to tell you that someone died?
Me: They’ll still be dead when I feel like picking up the phone.
Roomie: If I had an accident, would you even call 911?
Me: No, you’d die. I’d miss you.
I still take the position that the phone in my home has been installed for my convenience, not for anyone else’s, and that I will pick it up when I’m good and ready, which might be, oh, I dunno, maybe never.
Now, if that’s not a clear cut case of job burnout, I don’t know what is.
Of course, being of an inquisitive mindset and a tendency to view things from all angles, I started thinking about other occupations that might be prone to job burnout. And being an animal person, my thoughts immediately turned to veterinarians and veterinary technicians. I started wondering how they avoid job burnout, and how they deal with it when it occurs.
Okay, my friends, sit down and get a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, or an alcoholic beverage if that is what pleases you, and settle in, because as is often the case with my posts, it’s story time once again.
I’m going to tell you about my current vet, Dr. Stephen. I don’t think I’ve told you about this before, but I knew Steve long before he became a vet. He used to work as a stock boy down at the farm store where I buy things like Pen-Pro and syringes for minor infections in my dogs. He’d just about finished his veterinary technician course, and was thinking about taking it up a notch – he thought he might actually like to become a veterinarian. But, as he pointed out, it was going to cost a lot of money to go to veterinary college, and he wasn’t sure what to do.
Now understand, I’m not taking the credit for Steve becoming a vet. But what I told him at the time was, “Ask yourself if ten years down the road, you’re going to say ‘I wish I’d done it,’ and proceed accordingly.” Today, he’s taking great care of my dogs, but there were a couple of bumps along the road.
When thinking about job burnout, I started wondering how people like Steve, and the technicians who work with him, manage to stave off job burnout. I mean, they see horrible things every day – animals with incurable cancer, horribly injured animals, and even worse, animals who come into the clinic to be euthanized for no reason other than that their owners are tired of them. I’d think that having to go through that would lead to burnout at best, and PTSD at worst. So, since Steve and I are friends as well as enjoying a very satisfactory vet/client relationship, I told him that I wanted to write about job burnout in veterinarians and technicians, and asked him if we could get together over coffee.
I met Stephen at a local coffee shop. It was black coffee, no sugar, for both of us – I guess we don’t want anything interfering with our caffeine absorption!
I reminded him of the conversation we’d had years ago, and asked if he’d ever regretted his decision to become a veterinarian.
“Sometimes,” he said. “Not usually. And sometimes I don’t even really know how I feel.”
I asked him what was the worst he had to deal with, and he said, “The worst is seeing an animal that I can’t help. And a client I can’t help. Like, just the other day, I had to tell a client that her dog had cancer, and it was inoperable. The thing was, I’d told her the same thing about another dog six months before, and another three months before that one. She lost three dogs in just a year to cancer, and I was thinking, I can’t tell her this again. But I had to.”
I asked him, “How do you manage to get through that?”
He told me, “I don’t know. You just do. It’s like slogging through a goddamned swamp, and knowing you’ve got more swamp to get through, but there’s no way to get to dry land except through the swamp, so you just do it. You just do it.”
Then Steve lowered his head into the palm of his hand and said, “I dunno, Ash. Somewhere, deep inside me, I always wanted to be a vet, but sometimes I just feel so frustrated, worn out and disheartened, I don’t know how to keep it up. I take it home with me too, and I’m putting my wife through hell. I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m tired physically, I’m worn out emotionally, and sometimes I don’t think I’m in a good place mentally. But I guess others have it worse, so maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.”
Wow. I was thinking, how could it be any worse? Then Steve told me about a colleague of his who had slipped into alcoholism and drug abuse, and even considered suicide. As Steve put it, “She told me that she couldn’t sleep, because whenever she drifted off, she saw the faces of all the animals she’d euthanized.”
I took Steve’s hand, and said, “Buddy, you need to pull back and regroup. Maybe get some help. This sounds pretty bad, and I don’t want you to end up like your colleague.”
Fortunately for me, Steve was able to still work while dealing with his burnout, so I didn’t have to deal with another vet at his clinic. Through a support group for veterinarians, he learned about a technique called STOP.
What it is, is a means of Stepping back, Thinking, Organizing your thoughts, and Proceeding. In this way, you recover from work stress. Steve took regular breaks throughout the work day to pull back, regroup, and get back on track using the STOP technique.
He also, finally, scheduled a long overdue vacation so he could get away from work completely for a while. At that point I did have to work with another vet, but knowing that Steve would be coming back made it possible for me.
Finally, when Steve did come back, he lightened his workload. He was no longer taking on anyone and everyone who walked through the door. He basically told clinic management that he would continue with his regular clients, but did not want to take on any additional work for the foreseeable future. He also handed off a lot of routine tasks to technicians.
Don’t think for a minute that it’s just veterinarians who are vulnerable to burnout. Technicians also see a lot of unpleasantness, and it hits them hard. I’ve told you about my friend, Neila, who breeds Rottweilers, and I’ve told you that Rottweilers are often not a long-lived breed. I remember Neila telling me a story about having to have one of her Rotts put down – again, it was something like the story I told you about previously, about the time that Stephen had to tell a client that she was due for the third euthanasia in a year. Neila experienced something very similar, and upon seeing the same technician in the same clinic for what seemed to be about the umpteenth time, she commented, “You and I have been seeing far too much of each other lately.” The technician burst into tears.
So techs get hit hard too. And a lot of the time, they don’t take vacations because they’re low-paid and they really need the work. They seriously need the time off, though, because they see so much pain (both human and canine), and so much death. Sometimes all they can do is take a day here and a day there, or try to trade off jobs with others in the clinic – horrible as it sounds, it might be a matter of saying to a co-worker, “How about if I do the paperwork for the next few days, and you help the vet push the injections, and then I’ll do the same for you next week? I just can’t kill any more dogs right now.”
Stephen tells me that one of the ways he worked through his case of job burnout was to get back in touch with his sense of purpose. When he talked with me that day down at the farm store, he was pretty sure that his purpose in life was to help animals. He just sort of lost it somewhere along the way. So he thought back, considered why he wanted to be a vet in the first place, and concluded that there were still animals that needed him – animals that he could help.
Steve thought about his values. He’d always believed that his purpose in life was to help animals. Then, he looked around for support –first of all from clinic management that allowed him to work fewer hours for a while and assign more techs to help him. And I’d like to think that he looked to me as well. Finally, he ended up back on his feet, and doing the job that he loved and was always meant to do. He realized that he didn’t have to be Superman. Friends and colleagues would help him. He also tried to make more time for his wife and kids, and made a real effort to leave the job at the clinic when he was at home.
It wasn’t an overnight cure for Steve. He had to work hard at incorporating new life strategies, and find his passion for veterinary medicine again. It meant taking breaks, handing off tasks that could be dealt with by others, and relying on the support offriends and family.
Today, Steve is happy in his job once again. As he put it to me, “I do what I can. I do the best that I can. And when there’s nothing I can do, I accept that, and I move on. I’m not saying it’s the perfect solution, but it’s what seems to work for me. I still know that being a vet is all that I want to do with my life. I just had to find a better way of doing it.”
I don’t know that I can find anything to argue with there.
That happy, smiling veterinarian or vet technician who looks after your dog could be screaming in agony on the inside. Don’t ever think that the people who look after your pets are invariably happy, or not suffering from job burnout. They see horrific things, and often all they can do is stand by helplessly.
They’re people, just like the rest of us, and they’re subject to the same stresses and depression-inducing occurrences that plague all of us. I don’t know about you, but I think it would be very hard to go into work each day, and know that you might end up having to put down a healthy dog simply because its owner couldn’t be bothered anymore. Or to see a dog die of horrible injuries due to a traffic accident while the owner stood by and sobbed, knowing that there was nothing you could do. Or tell a little girl that you’re sorry, but her puppy is too sick to live and he must now go to another place.
From my perspective, our veterinarians and vet techs are heroes every day. And if we’re lucky, every day they will enjoy a sort of re-birth, and go into their jobs with the same level of enthusiasm and compassion as they had the day before. Sometimes, though, that’s just not possible. And when it’s not, we have to remember all the times that they did do just that, and give them time to regroup and recover so that they can get back to doing what we need, and what they got into the business of animal care to do – looking after our beloved friends with kindness, compassion, and a sense of optimism.
So, if you have a vet that you love and appreciate, as I have, and if you also love his or her technicians, understand when they’re having an off day. Know that burnout is a very real possibility. Even the most dedicated vet or vet tech can become a victim of burnout.
I know about job burnout. I’ve had it, big time. And all I had to worry about in my job, all those years ago, was not getting enough sales, or not turning a tech support call around in enough time. I never had to worry about life or death situations, and I never had to deal with people who were crying uncontrollably because they were about to lose an animal that they loved more than life itself.
Was my burnout less real? No, it wasn’t. I still have nightmares about my days in the call centers. But I can only begin to imagine how much worse it might have been if I had been faced with the decision to tell someone “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more that I can do for your loved one.” I can only imagine how a veterinarian feels when he or she doesn’t know if a hug should be offered, or just a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, or if they should just let a person cry quietly and offer a tissue. I don’t know how it must feel to deal with some totally callous person who’s saying “I’m going on vacation, and I don’t want to pay to board my dog, so please, just put him to sleep.”
I don’t know how it is, every day, to deal with life and death, and the pain of loss, and the accompanying grief. I know burnout in the context of, “I just don’t care about my job anymore.” I don’t know burnout in the context of “I care so damn muchabout my job, and about my clients, and about their dogs, and I have to stop caring, because it’s killing me inside.” And I’m glad that I don’t know that kind of burnout.
I have sat on the floor of an animal clinic more than once, holding a beloved dog and watching him being put to sleep, and have observed veterinarians and staff sobbing along with me. Now imagine how many times that they have to do that in any given week. It’s gut-wrenching, and yet they do it all the time, for their human clients and the pets that they have come to know over the years. Imagine taking that home with you every day. Imagine knowing that there will be some animals that you will never be able to help. Maybe now you have some small idea of the potential heartbreak, and the very real possibility of burnout in veterinarians and technicians.
So please, if you have a veterinarian you love, and clinic staff that are good to your dog, appreciate them. Treasure them. Tell them that you appreciate and treasure them. I really believe that there’s no harder job, nothing more stressful on the psyche and the emotions. They hold your dog’s health in their hands, and it takes a huge toll on them. The very least that you can do is say, “You have been here for me. So now, let me be here for you.”