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Trying to Keep Everything in Balance

Veterinary professionals walk a tightrope anchored at one end by work duties and at the other by life. Sometimes, it’s OK to turn around.

Trying to Keep Everything in Balance
Don’t be so focused on showing up for your job that you forget to show up for the rest of your life.

As I pull into the parking lot at work, I mentally kick myself. “What am I doing here? It’s my day off.” I spent the past three hours talking on the phone, driving to a client’s house, putting a pet to sleep and now unpacking supplies from my car. I had family plans for this afternoon that are now out of the question. For someone who talks and writes regularly about setting boundaries, why am I so bad at it?

As a whole, veterinary professionals are lucky but tired. While we are fortunate that our industry didn’t wither under the restrictions of a global pandemic, there have been downsides to our booming business. The biggest drawback to the steady demand for veterinary services is the lack of enough skilled laborers (veterinarians, technicians, front-desk specialists) to do the work consistently coming through our door.

Does anyone else feel like you are running an ultramarathon in a series of all-out sprints instead of at a steady pace? I know I do. No wonder many of us are desperate to create rest space.

Yes, No, Maybe

Even the most forward-thinking of us — those who try to walk the talk about protecting our personal time and balancing work with fun and relaxation — are prone to this cycle: We work too hard, so we declare that we’re going to cut back and put up guardrails around our free time. Then, inevitably, we feel guilty when faced with someone’s urgent need, so we make an exception (and then another) and give in to the demands for just a few more minutes or hours of our attention. At the end of the day, the free time we tried to preserve is gone, resulting in another kind of guilt. We feel like we failed at maintaining a work-life balance. It’s a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t scenario.

How Does This Happen?

Veterinary professionals can be hard on ourselves when we think we failed at anything. To get where we are in our careers, we traveled a road of high achievement and intense pressure. Along the way, we were warned again and again: Don’t be so focused on showing up for your job that you forget to show up for the rest of your life.

So, why do veterinary professionals let this keep happening? Why don’t we have rock-solid enforcement of lunch breaks and closing times? Why don’t we shut down conversations that clearly lead to someone asking for a favor that will transform our personal time into work time?

I’ll tell you my answer, and maybe it’s yours, too: Even though many of us are understandably tired and in need of a break, I don’t ever want to be completely unavailable. Likewise, I think many veterinarians do not want to be an inaccessible resource. We don’t want to be 9-to-5 workers who are never asked for help outside of a compensated, scheduled appointment. That’s not how we see ourselves as people, what we want from our careers or the kind of caretakers we aspire to be.

The Clock Is Ticking

After I spent that afternoon putting a pet to sleep — and driving to and from the clinic on my day off — I asked myself why I had done it. Why did I give up my limited free time? My honest response was that I wanted to be a person who helps others. The pet I put to sleep belonged to my friend. He and his wife cried as we sat and discussed how to break the news to their children. I was there for them, and I was glad to have the skills, knowledge and equipment to bring them (and their dear pet) comfort. That’s who I am.

The next day, back in the clinic, a customer service representative told me that my 2:30 p.m. appointment called and was running 15 minutes late. Our policy is that anyone 15 or more minutes late for an appointment will be rescheduled so that the doctor isn’t put too far behind schedule the rest of the day. This late pet owner was begging to be seen, and the rep asked whether I would make an exception.

Having trained myself and others on boundary setting all these years, I had this initial thought: “No. We have the 15-minute rule for a reason. If I let this person come in, I could end up running late all day long.” I imagined the worst-case scenario in which, after receiving permission, the pet owner would arrive 25 or 30 minutes late. And her cat wouldn’t “only need vaccines” but instead would turn into a snowballing clinical and behavioral case requiring sedation and a pint of my blood. My subsequent clients would be furious at their wait times, I would stay well into the night trying to finish my work, someone would write a one-star online review, and my children, missing their father, would cry themselves to sleep. My mind painted a vivid picture of where this could go.

Thus, I was surprised when I heard myself say, “Tell her to please hurry, and we’ll fit her in.” Why would I say that? Why didn’t I enforce the 15-minute rule and move along? The truth is that when I go out of my way to help people, I feel good about myself. I believe I am using the gifts and opportunities I have received to make the world better. Call it hokey, but I’ve always believed that karma is real, that somewhere out there is a scoreboard of the kindness I put out into the world, adding up over time to come around as kindness from someone else.

Bending the Rules

Not everyone believes in that kind of thing, but the back-and-forth flow of generosity means something to me. Every time I have given my time to visit a friend’s home and assist in end-of-life care for a pet, that person has mentioned it years later. Every neighbor I’ve gone out of my way to help waves when I walk past with my dog. The lady who was running 15 minutes late? When she arrived exactly 15 minutes late, she said, “Thank you for seeing me! This chemotherapy makes me feel so sick, and my cat hates the crate so much. I just couldn’t imagine coming back another time.”

Yes, I’m contradicting myself. I regularly preach boundaries, rest and a sense of identity outside of work. But I also am saying, “OK, sometimes we get to stretch our boundaries.” Should we all work on maintaining a healthy balance in our work lives and home lives? Absolutely. Should we allow abusive or demanding behavior by clients? Of course not. At the same time, we must cut ourselves a little slack when we bend our rules. If we don’t want to make ourselves so inaccessible that we are seen by others or ourselves as people who live behind a paywall, that’s a good thing.

When an opportunity comes along in which the difference you could make for someone in need is greater than the cost in time or sanity, I say go for it. Or don’t! The point is, I don’t want people to beat themselves up over the choices they make in those moments. We feel beaten up often enough.

Just don’t throw boundaries out the window entirely.

What We Can Do Better

Now, accepting that we sometimes go the extra mile and that many of us have moral concerns about being unavailable to pet owners in need doesn’t mean relaxing our personal and professional boundaries overall. In fact, it’s all the more reason for practice leaders to be more committed to and intentional about creating and maintaining those boundaries.

If we acknowledge that veterinary professionals will sometimes, at their discretion, go above and beyond their work-time limits to help someone, then it’s all the more important that we codify those limits at work. After all, if you’re generally protected by rules set up in your best interest, you’ll feel more comfortable choosing when you want to bend one.

Clinics need to set up and reliably enforce systems designed to ensure people take lunch and other breaks and go home on time. It’s important to train everyone to communicate policies effectively and consistently, too, so that clients know and respect the rules and understand when they’re asking for something beyond the usual scope. Clinic signage can help let pet owners know their rights and their responsibilities. Those in charge of managing protocols should prioritize the needs of team members, knowing that, ultimately, taking care of the people who work in a clinic enables those people to take better care of their patients and clients.

So, I say this to all my lucky, tired fellow veterinary professionals: Be proud when you hold fast to your boundaries. Be proud when you choose to make an exception. And when it feels like there’s no perfectly right answer, congratulate yourself on doing the best you can to make a thoughtful, compassionate choice. That’s who you are.

Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker and author. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. His Facebook page, podcast, website [drandyroark.com], and YouTube show reach millions of people every month. Dr. Roark is a three-time winner of the NAVC Practice Management Speaker of the Year Award.

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