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 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. Learn more at drandyroark.comRead Articles Written by Andy Roark
When I was a kid, we played a game in middle school until the teachers cracked down and banned it. Eloquently named “Slaps,” it consisted of one person, the slapper, extending his hands, palms up. A second person stood facing the first and laid his hands, palms down, on top of the slapper’s hands. The slapper would then attempt to quickly smack the ever-loving fire out of the top of the opponent’s hands while the opponent desperately tried to pull his hands away. If the slapper missed the strike, the roles were reversed. The brutal game tended to end with one player becoming fatigued and taking a continual beating until the top of his hands were beet red and the pain made him quit.
It’s that game I’m reminded of as I look at the news today and listen to the existential stressors of our colleagues in veterinary practice. One painful slap after another. I turn on the TV and “slap!” I check my news app. “Smack!” I peek at social media. “Ouch!”
Slap! Slap! Slap! The longer I persist, the more mentally fatigued I become and the harder the information slaps seem to hit me. Horrible customer behaviors, inflation, labor shortages, misinformation, political and cultural polarization, human rights violations, war. I feel like I’m living in a world of five-alarm fires and have nothing but a Dixie cup from which to throw water.
I have arguments with imaginary clients, employees, activists and politicians about all manner of topics, I rail to no one about mental health in veterinary medicine, and I grit my teeth about the fatigue and overwork that so many of us feel. I know these emotional workouts do nothing to change the issues that upset me, but I get sucked into them. I suspect I’m not alone in these fruitless pursuits.
We Can’t Ignore Everything
Because of my mental self-flagellation, I’ve thought a lot about what to do in a world where access to information can mean internalizing endless turmoil (real and imagined) and where the power to respond tangibly to industrywide, national and global threats is well beyond my or your reach.
Being informed is essential. I don’t see ignoring unpleasant truths or the plight of others as a wise or compassionate strategy. Also, giving consideration to industry and societal trends is unarguably smart for both businesses and employees. As I’ve written many times before, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
At the same time, most of us have limited emotional and mental energy to get through our days. We wake up with finite emotional and decision-making capacities that we use up through our day until we have nothing left. Pushing past these capacities is exhausting, demoralizing and often counterproductive. Combine this limitation with the fact that working in a veterinary hospital is highly mentally and emotionally fatiguing on its own, and you can see where we have a significant problem.
Know Your Limits
I’d like to propose an idea to help us meet the societal obligations of being informed while maintaining healthy boundaries that might shield us from decision drain, emotional burnout, compassion fatigue and a general lifetime of anxiety. I’m calling the approach strategic stress.
Strategic stress is the practice of being informed to the level where we can decide how to address a given situation and stop there. It is not ignoring challenges or the plights of others but considering the challenges intentionally with the goal of:
- Deciding which actions we can take given the power we have.
- Setting aside further mental rumination of the issue.
- Carrying out the chosen actions.
For example, a practice owner can’t control what other clinics in the area pay their staff. All she can do is focus on making her practice as great a place to work as it possibly can be. She can take the available information, have open conversations with her employees about their needs and goals, and genuinely apply herself to making her clinic a place where people want to work.
Of course, I understand the stress of worrying about losing great people — I can’t afford to pay them what others can. So yes, I empathize with the fear that a positive work environment won’t be attractive enough when the alternative is an unquestionably higher dollar amount. I also know the frustration of trying to convince someone who hasn’t worked in other practices that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
The truth is we don’t have control over what people are offered by other businesses or their decision to leave. It’s all beyond our control. Worrying and stressing are not going to change the outcome.
In this example, the only stress worth taking on is what’s required to motivate us to create the best possible work environment and compensation packages. Internalizing that specific motivator while putting aside anxiety over factors beyond our control is strategic stress. Most of us need to spend more time in such a mindset.
The Big Three
The essence of strategic stress is being aware of our stress levels and how we feel as we take in information or ponder challenges. When we notice our arguments with imaginary people, chew our fingernails or obsessively come back to replay moments that upset us, we need to stop. We must ask ourselves, “What is in my power to do about this?”
When I consider that question, remembering the big three helps. The big three are what I continually need to be reminded are out of my control. They are:
- Other people.
- The past.
- The future.
I can’t make people behave rationally. I can’t make them decide to be happy, kind or empathetic. I also can’t change what happened yesterday or what is going to happen tomorrow. None of those things are within my power or control.
I know this is a simple concept, but it’s incredible how many of us forget those truths or naively reject them. We think we can alter those things through our charisma, willpower or medical knowledge. It’s a misconception that tortures so many veterinary professionals, and as complex problems come to our attention with greater and greater frequency, the pain will not go away.
Recognizing we can’t control other people, the past or the future is a huge step toward eyes-wide-open acceptance of our situations. It’s the first and most significant hurdle to determining the actions within our power to take and creating realistic plans to move forward. It’s a tool for focusing our energy in the most productive way possible and our best chance at balancing awareness, acceptance and action when facing enormous and complex challenges.
We work in a great profession. But, of course, it’s not a perfect industry — there’s no such thing — and it has some terrible problems. To enjoy the vocation we chose for ourselves and protect our mental health in a world that seems to turn on its head routinely, we must be selective about the stresses we take on and intentional about the actions we take to help those around us. We can do more to help ourselves, our team, society and our patients (and feel better simultaneously) if we practice selective stress.