A couple of years ago I was asked to speak to a group of 80 human doctors about compassion fatigue and burnout.
My first reaction was, "Ew! They actually touch people?!"
In preparation for my talk I reached out to a doctor in the hospital system that invited me. I wanted to learn a bit more about his work experiences and the hospital's environment.
He told me all I needed to know in one compelling story.
Recognizing the growing trend of burnout in their providers, the hospital administrative team decided to invest in employee wellbeing. They hired yoga instructors and massage therapists to come on-site and offer services to anyone on staff.
Participation was universally encouraged.
As a positive psychology practitioner I know all about the benefits of regular self-care. So I asked the doctor what kind of an impact these new perks had.
He paused, sighed, and said, "None, Josh. They had no impact on any of us."
He went on to share how the administrators invested in these offerings but did nothing to ensure the team could actually take advantage of them. When you feel like your job demands your attention 60-80 hours a week where's the time to wholeheartedly invest yourself in yoga or relax for a professional massage?
In his words, "They offered yoga but didn't change my schedule so I never even got to try it out."
With minimal participation, administration viewed it as a poor investment. Eventually they pulled funding.
This same doctor told me heartbreaking stories - of missing the birth of his son because he couldn't get coverage for his patients, of putting off his own healthcare so he could meet his production goals at work, and so on.
Work Sucks. Who's To Blame?
Recently, I saw a post on social media that struck me. A veterinarian shared a message from another veterinarian that essentially said,
"Sure, VetMed needs to change. But the change starts with YOU. Stop blaming your bosses, job, clients, etc. Happiness is up to you. You are in control."
It reminded me of a quote,
"Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing."
Over 20 years of rigorous research in positive psychology (and other fields) has shown us the power of mindset. We routinely find examples of folks who seem to "have it all" and yet appear unhappy. We also find myriad examples of folks who appear to be beset by horrible circumstances and yet are a shining example of genuine joy and gratitude.
In so many ways, our wellbeing is about how we choose to think, be, and behave.
I am also reminded of the doctors at the hospital I presented to.
In veterinary medicine we've been talking candidly about burnout for only a brief time, considering the long history of our profession. Human medicine has been addressing the issue for far longer.
And the longer they talk about it, the more nurses and doctors and other health care staff find the word repulsive.
To them, burnout has become pejorative.
The more people talk about mindset and mindfulness and self-care and boundaries as tools for burnout prevention, the more it feels to the audience like a form of victim blaming.
You're burnt out? You must not be able to handle it. And if you can't handle it, something must be wrong with you.
That's the message they take away.
Nuance - A Fancy Word for "Shit is Messy"
We are all - every person - both part of and contributing to a system. As human beings, social creatures, living and working in society we are not insulated, siloed, whole world's unto ourselves.
The challenges we face in the veterinary profession are myriad, nuanced, and incredibly messy.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of grasping for silver bullets. Complexity is uncomfortable. Quick-fixes feel good.
Unhappy in VetMed? Establish better boundaries! Do more yoga! Practice self-care! Get a new job!
Or....put all the blame on your crappy boss, crappy team, crappy hospital, crappy clients.
Sweeping claims of blame or 140-character solutions are attempts at an "either/or" kind of fix that over-simplify the complexity and miss the mark.
What we need is more "AND" thinking. We need to lean into the messy complexity and offer voice and influence to all parties.
As individuals, we have a role to play. We are not simply victims of our life. We are active participants in it and should strive to behave that way as much as we can.
That said, we are members of a system. Much of the system is beyond our control. And so our leaders, bosses, teammates, clients also have a role to play.
We must care more for ourselves...AND...our leaders must do more to support us in doing so. It takes both.
Yes, we need better boundaries...AND...our employers must be better at respecting them.
You get the picture.
Oh, and don't forget, the rest of the system is also made up of people. Real human beings who deserve the same support, respect, happiness, and fulfillment as you do.
A Systemic Approach
The farthest reaches of our potential - as individual people, veterinary professionals, and the profession writ large - is intimately tied to all parts of the system.
We must take responsibility for our life circumstances. And we must recognize that those who "hold power" over our circumstances and context matter too.
In every situation, in every system, everyone plays a part. When we can candidly shine light on all the parts and support a more positive approach across the entire system, the magic will happen.
We can thrive, together.