Disenchanted: To be disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired, according to Google. It’s a word that has come to mind a few times during my veterinary technician career. A few other words have come to mind as well, but they don’t sound quite as nice as “disenchanted”. But why, you ask, would I ever be disappointed by being a veterinary technician? I love this job. I love it so much that I created a blog so I could talk about it outside of work on my time off (I do have a life, I promise). I love it so much that I spent 4 years getting a 2 year degree while working full time to become licensed without being promised a promotion or a raise. I had other options, but I chose to be a licensed veterinary technician.
I think any healthcare worker or anyone who cares for the every need of another being, struggles with the same issues. Burnout. Compassion fatigue. They are two separate disorders that stem from physical and/or emotional exhaustion. An article in Veterinary Practice News described burnout as resulting from work environment stressors (long hours with no breaks, toxic interpersonal environments, lack of compensation or appreciation), while compassion fatigue manifests from the daily emotional trauma of empathizing with clients and patients (Dobbs). They are real conditions in the healthcare industry that require awareness from anyone who wants to make a career out of caring for people or animals. If you have dealt with these issues in your own career, then I’m here to tell you that you aren’t alone. And if you haven’t experienced them yet as a veterinary technician, consider this blog post a friendly warning and do some prophylactic care for yourself before you do experience them.
There may be times when you feel pushed beyond your limits as a veterinary technician. It may start as canceling dinner plans for the third week in a row to stay late for an emergency, coming in on your day off because the hospital was short-handed, irregular day and overnight shifts that were designed to fit the hospital’s needs instead of yours. Perhaps in your area, there is a shortage of qualified, educated veterinary technicians, and hospital staff is stretched thin even when nobody has called out sick or is on vacation. Multitasking is one thing. However, one person running around doing a workload meant for two or three people will eventually wear on you. Maybe you’re new to the hospital and are simply excited to get your foot in the veterinary industry door. So, you are willing to pick up any shift, work any hours, do anything to prove to your new coworkers and employer that you are serious about this job. I applaud and encourage your enthusiasm and work ethic. I really do because I was right where you are. During my very first kennel assistant job, I walked dogs outside alone with no fence in a not-so-safe downtown area. Even when I saw police cars and yellow “CAUTION” tape at the gas station next door, I was just grateful to finally have a job – any job- at a veterinary hospital. When I first started working for the specialty hospital where I’m currently employed, I offered to stay late almost every day to finish cleaning instruments and surgical suites. If anyone needed to leave while there were still things to get done, I encouraged them to do so and offered to stay as long as was needed to get everything done. I wasn’t alone, mind you. My coworkers worked hard as well. But, I was new. I had to prove myself.
As the months, then years went by, I accepted working ten to twelve hours straight as part of a normal routine. I gave up my lunch hour to help keep the surgeon’s day going. Instead of taking my two allotted paid ten minute breaks, I used that time to clean induction tables and set out packs for the next surgery. Snacking and water breaks were considered a waste of precious time. I could handle it. I was young (hey, I’m still young!) and unlike many of my coworkers, I didn’t have children to pick up from school, feed dinner to, and complete homework with after work. Furthermore, my veterinary technician schooling was a self-paced distance education program, so I could complete homework and assignments during my days off. Piece of cake. Or so I thought…
Over the next few years, I started changing. I wasn’t as productive at work. I still stayed late, but I was resentful. At home, I couldn’t even muster up enough motivation to clean my house. Calculating Metoclopramide CRI’s seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Getting the next patient prepped for surgery was like trudging waist deep through mud. Things that people said and conflicts with managers or surgeons, that I usually just let roll off my back, irritated and angered me to my core. On many days after I was finally able to leave the hospital, I would cry uncontrollably during my 45 minute drive home. No doubt my employers and coworkers considered me a hard worker. But, at what cost? I was in full-fledged burnout. It seeped into every corner of my life, from my relationships outside of work to my efficiency on the clock. My compassion for the patients became robotic. I no longer experienced that satisfaction and “all is right with the world” feeling from simply seeing a sick dog or cat finally feel well enough to take a bite of food. Treatment sheet tasks were just daunting demands on paper that had to be suffered through before I could go home and bury myself under the covers of my bed. Things needed to change. I needed to make some adjustments in my life before I could get that passion for veterinary medicine back.
There are several articles online and probably elsewhere that give good advice on preventing and treating burnout and compassion fatigue that may be more informative and reputable than this blog post. I’m not a psychologist or counselor by any means, and I encourage you to seek help from one of these professionals if you are experiencing severe stress from work. However, here are some things that have made a difference in my personal struggle with burnout:
- Discuss your struggles with your boss or a trusted mentor. Be proactive about burnout and ask for his/her help before your work performance and mental health suffers too much. If you have a good boss, they will respect you for coming to them first and trying to work out a plan to manage your stress. A good veterinary manager will realize that burnout is a serious problem for veterinarians and veterinary technicians alike, and that taking strides to prevent and cope with burnout is necessary for long-term success in the veterinary profession.
Picture from http://www.cutestpaw.com/images/like-a-boss/
- Avoid bad management like the plague if at all possible. Bad bosses contribute significantly to burnout and low job satisfaction. If you currently have a terrible boss then seriously consider other employment options. Your mental health is more important than a job. I do realize that not everyone has the luxury of other options. Maybe you’re stuck in a short-term internship with a terrible supervisor. Then focus on learning and the fact that it is short-term. Look forward and be hopeful about eventually moving on while getting the most out of your current internship. Maybe you’re in a more permanent job position with a toxic work environment. Then look elsewhere. Consider other options, even it means a pay cut or demotion. Notice I didn’t say TAKE those options necessarily. Sometimes, simply considering the alternative to your current situation changes your perspective and allows you to deal with it a little bit better. Or maybe you decide that a lesser paying position at a different hospital is, in fact, worth your sanity and long-term happiness.
Picture from http://www.cutestpaw.com/images/im-in-charge-now/
- A little hope and positive thinking go a long way. I’ve always been, to varying degrees, a pessimist. I want to say that I’m a realist simply because that sounds better, but the realist in me tells me to call it like it is: I’m a pessimist. However, having a more positive attitude in how you look at things can help with stress management. Focusing on the good things about your job or being thankful for what is going right in your day can help your overall satisfaction. Don’t otherthink or dwell on the negatives, and have hope that things change, they can improve, and you don’t have to be stuck in your current situation forever. That being said, I still struggle with this, so for all of you positive thinkers out there PLEASE give your suggestions!
- Take time off. The only sure way to cure burnout is to remove yourself completely from the stress that is causing it. Again, talk to your boss about taking a vacation. And, more importantly, do NOT feel guilty about it. If you are a workaholic like me, realize that you need time to have fun and enjoy other things if you are going to be a veterinary technician for the long haul. Relaxing isn’t for sissies or the lazy folks. Forget cleaning the house, unless that is what you truly love to do (in which case you and your cleaning supplies have an open invitation to my house, always). Take time to do the hobbies that you love, hobbies that have nothing to do with veterinary medicine. Start playing your violin again, pick up that novel you’ve been meaning to read, get your dogs into those flyball competitions. I’m sure you love this career as much as I do, but don’t make the same mistake I did and let it take over your entire life. Leave plenty of time for yourself and give yourself a break from life at the veterinary hospital. You will find that you have much more to give to those sick and injured critters out there when you make sure to give to yourself every once and a while.
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- Dobbs, Katherine, RVT, CVPM, PHR. “Fighting Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Industry.” Veterinary Practice News. 30, Aug., 2012. 3, Nov., 2013 http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/vet-dept/vet-practice-management/fighting-compassion-fatigue-in-the-veterinary-industry.aspx.