Josh Vaisman is the co-founder of Flourish Veterinary Consulting, where he is a positive psychology practitioner and a positive leadership and culture consultant. He combines more than 20 years of veterinary experience and a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology to empower veterinary organizations in cultivating environments where employees thrive. He is a certified compassion fatigue professional.Read Articles Written by Josh Vaisman
Veterinary medicine has a big “problem,” which I put in quotes because this article isn’t meant to be a finger-wagging diatribe about what’s broken in our profession, the people who lead it and who’s at fault. Rather, I see veterinary medicine as a collection of good people doing the best they can with what they have. The “problem” is that no one taught us a better way. In truth, we have a glorious opportunity.
So Much Debt
A few years ago, I found myself chatting with a doctor at the veterinary hospital I was managing. As we enjoyed a rare lull in the action, the topic of student debt came up. Of course, I’m not entirely naïve, so I knew that typical veterinary school graduates at the time would begin their careers with an average debt approaching $150,000. What I did not consider was the variance in those numbers. For every student who graduated free from debt was someone working under the burden of $300,000 in financial weight.
The associate I was talking to that afternoon would have welcomed a debt load of “only” $300,000. She candidly shared that, five years out of school, she still owed over $450,000. That number struck me like the tackle of a full-grown St. Bernard.
Hours later, I startled awake at 2 a.m. thinking about that number. As the managing partner in the hospital, one of my responsibilities was to ensure the business remained viable so that the veterinarian I had spoken with would continue to have a job.
As I began to doze off again, I remembered what we were paying her. “That’s not nearly enough,” I thought. “She’ll never get out of debt! We have to do better.”
I know I’m not alone in that belief. The people of veterinary medicine struggle with myriad problems. Financial difficulty is just one of them.
We Don’t Make Well-Being Easy
The profession we choose to serve is a difficult one. It challenges us in many ways and with a frequency that sometimes feels unrelenting. The work we do also is physically taxing. Ask credentialed technicians how their backs feel 10 years into their careers and you’ll understand.
Of course, our work is emotionally and psychologically expensive, too. We are a compassionate bunch by nature, giving our hearts to the animals we care for each day. Sometimes, we can’t care for them how we want or how they deserve, and that hurts. Sometimes, our clients need our empathy so acutely that we attempt to give more than our souls can muster. And yet we go on giving.
To be quality veterinary professionals, we must accumulate a world-class base of knowledge and skill. The accumulation never stops, and we never quite reach the pinnacle of mastery. There’s always something else to learn, a new talent to acquire or hone. Not to mention, our work is imbued with a great deal of uncertainty, as we never really know what each day will bring.
Add to all that the student debt so many veterinarians and technicians carry, an unacceptable majority of them compensated at wages that make living where they work difficult, much less managing their debt. They come to work to find they are underresourced and juggling caseloads. Working long hours, often without breaks, they must navigate interpersonal challenges within both the teams around them and the clients they desperately try to serve.
Meanwhile, many of us find that leaving work at work is increasingly difficult. Over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of veterinarians catching up on records at home for hours. Or technicians at the dinner table who can talk only about the cases at work. Or the practice manager who frequently wakes up at 2 a.m. thinking about the hospital finances or HR issues.
Veterinary medicine is hard work, and the stress and strain it causes are real. The problems contributing to that stress and strain are equally real and worth solving.
Renowned research psychologist and University of Pennsylvania Professor Dr. Martin Seligman once said, “The absence of mental illness is not necessarily wellness.” The same applies to work. We can be not burned out and not thriving at the same time.
Illness is something we prevent. Wellness is something we grow.
Now let me tell you about the garden my wife and I keep in Colorado. In the spring, we prepare the soil and plant seeds or seedlings. Then, as the comfort of spring turns to the heat of summer, the inevitable occurs: Weeds appear everywhere, doing all they can to compete with what we intend to grow.
You could think of the challenges and problems we face in our profession as the “weeds” of the veterinary garden. And certainly, pulling weeds is an important aspect of gardening. But imagine if all we did was pick weeds.
In Colorado, we have a thing called bindweed. It is, quite simply, the bane of my existence. The running joke in my house concerns trying to count the hours I’m in the backyard, yanking shoots of bindweed, on any given summer evening. I’ll admit, though, the activity can feel quite cathartic.
In some ways, pulling shoots is futile because bindweed is almost impossible to defeat. The source of the plant is as much as 10 feet underground. So, as dedicated as I am to pulling the shoots, I’ll never get to the root system, and the bindweed will return every summer.
Of course, I can’t let bindweed run rampant. The shoots will wrap around our garden’s plants, flowers and fruit and suffocate them. If I want my garden to flourish, I need to keep the weeds at bay. Even if we could spend the time and resources necessary to achieve a garden free of weeds, what would be left? An empty patch of dirt.
My wife and I must grow something, which is the key. Every successful garden finds a balance between the inevitable weeds and the healthy plants the gardener intends to cultivate. Veterinary medicine should be no different.
Most of us in this profession are expert weeders. We’ve been trained that way. As medical practitioners, we are adept at identifying the weeds in our environment. Our knowledge, skill and passion give us incredible tools for pulling the weeds and, in some cases, eliminating them.
But gardeners aren’t just weeders. They’re also growers. The absence of something is not necessarily the presence of its opposite.
Few of us have been taught to grow the things that contribute to the professional well-being and fulfillment I think we all deserve.
Growing the Veterinary Garden
I want to reiterate this: The weeds we face in the veterinary profession are real and noxious. They wrap their shoots around us and threaten to suffocate our well-being.
We should do what we can to eliminate the weeds of student debt, underpay, overwork and emotional struggle. It is a moral imperative to alleviate suffering. I’m grateful for all the bright, talented, compassionate minds working hard every day to create a profession free from burnout, compassion fatigue, depression or worse.
I must say, too, that a life free of suffering is not necessarily a life of thriving. The people of veterinary medicine deserve more than simply “not suffering.” They deserve to thrive. We have a moral imperative to cultivate workplace environments where people can experience professional fulfillment.
You see, eliminating student debt and growing veterinary wages will help. But a world free from financial strain doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be psychologically safe. Psychological safety is a critical plant in the garden of professional fulfillment, and it’s something we grow.
Reducing workloads will help. But a world with manageable workloads doesn’t necessarily lead to a world in which we routinely experience mattering and meaningfulness. These are also critical plants in the garden of professional fulfillment that we must grow.
Finding ways to better connect with clients and empowering them with the empathy that will help them treat us with more kindness also will help. However, having happy pet owners doesn’t automatically mean we will find a sense of growth and accomplishment. Those are important plants, too, and we must grow them.
Debt, low wages, heavy workloads and difficult clients are weeds in our garden. They cause real stress and real problems. But eliminating those weeds won’t necessarily grow the
garden I think we’re striving for. What we want is to feel fulfilled in our work and through it.
That means pulling weeds and planting seeds. But, of course, planting seeds is not enough. We must also nourish them as they sprout and grow.
Now here’s the good news. We can do both!
Human beings can thrive in difficult circumstances. Therefore, we can support a flourishing garden even if a few weeds remain. That’s because you, we, all of us, were born to be resilient. It’s hardwired into our being. You have superpowers that allow you to face difficult things and, despite the discomfort and pain, to thrive beyond them.
I know that’s true because you are here, reading this article. You have navigated weeds in your life. You are strong, capable and full of the potential to thrive. In fact, you are as strong and capable as you are today because of the challenges you faced, not despite them.
What Won’t Change
Here’s the kicker: The veterinary garden will always have weeds, and our work will always be hard. Even if we paid off all the student debt, tripled everyone’s salary and turned our clients into universally kind people prepared to accept all our recommendations, we might be stress-free. But would we, in an instant, find ourselves happy, joyful and fulfilled? Not if we fail to grow the things that make thriving possible.
If we can place you in a garden that feels psychologically safe, contributes to your sense of mattering, enables opportunities to experience genuine meaningfulness, supports you down the path of success and accomplishment, and connects with you in a personal way, you will grow and thrive. Even if that garden still has some weeds.
Well-being isn’t achieved by elimination; it’s cultivated by addition. So, let’s get to growing together.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Pet-owning gardeners might want to avoid growing onions, garlic, chives and leeks. According to Pet Poison Helpline, those foods are poisonous to dogs and cats. “Garlic is considered to be about five times as potent as onion,” the 24/7 service reports on its website. “Onion and garlic poisoning may have a delayed onset, and clinical signs may not be apparent for several days.”