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4 Ways to Improve Your Work-Life Balance

Rocks balancing

‘How do I improve my work-life balance?’ has to be one of the most common questions in the ‘So You’re a Vet… Now What?’ community, ricocheting around the network like a perpetual echo. Initially, I was surprised that relatively new veterinarians, who have just landed their dream career, were struggling with this. However, once I started mulling it over, I realised the issue of work-life balance is especially relevant to new veterinarians. 

Generally, issues such as taking annual leave, workplace flexibility and mental wellbeing are becoming increasingly important to millennials – both in the UK and on the other side of the globe. Moreover, the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is entwined with feelings of overwhelm, lack of direction or focus, and loss of control. In reality, new veterinarians are particularly likely to resonate with such feelings. The beginning of a veterinary career can be immensely stressful: you may feel like a fish out of water, like you are meant to be a master of everything immediately, and you quake at the thought of dealing with clients.

The real question is: ‘How can I tackle these feelings of overwhelm to achieve a ‘work-life balance’?’. Read on for the answer…

1) Learn to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’

This seems pretty simple. On the contrary, many new veterinarians are burdened with a perfectionist mindset and the pressure to perform which makes it very difficult to say ‘no’ to additional tasks. Saying ‘yes’ to filling out those forms for someone else, even though you know this means you’ll end up clocking out at the 25th hour, will inevitably disrupt the balance in your life.

Instead, learn to say ‘no’ in a respectful way that still leaves options. For example, you might say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t fill out those papers today, but I have time to do them on Wednesday. How does that sound?’ or ‘Sorry, I don’t have time to fill those out today, but I know Julie has some time this afternoon, perhaps you could ask her?’. This isn’t about dropping Julie in it, but if you know that Julie genuinely has some free time, this provides a legitimate alternative and keeps everyone happy.

On the flip side, what about when you say ‘yes’? Think about the passion and excitement you felt when you got into vet school, and the passion you have for creating better lives for animals. This is your overarching ‘why’; your purpose. This passion should infuse every new task you take on; it should be present in every ‘yes’. 

When you take on something new – a new role, a weekend shift, a new specialism – your ‘yes’ should be said with passion. It should be 100% ‘yes’. If you find yourself taking on something with less than 100%, ask yourself why you are really agreeing to this. Ask yourself if it serves your overarching purpose. 

If we begin saying ‘yes’ to things that do not contribute to our happiness, this is when we begin to feel downtrodden and out of control.

2) Work on your time management skills

Effective time-management could generate you 250 additional hours of free-time per year! There are really simple steps you can take, such as building a period of time into your day dedicated to completing administrative tasks and using templates to produce clinical notes.

One of the key elements of time-management is maintaining focus on the task at hand. Working in a busy veterinary practice, it is easy to become distracted, to take that client call whilst your nurse is anaesthetising Fluffy, for example. In the long run, this will end up wasting time, and you fall in danger of becoming ‘Dr Scatterbrain’. Before you know it, the client call has lasted half an hour and the nurse has ended up putting Fluffy back in their cage, meaning the operation is delayed!

Therefore, maintaining focus is relevant to having a work-life balance because those Dr Scatterbrains among us, who dart from one unfinished task to the next, often feel out of control and out of their depth – the core emotions we identified at the beginning of this post. The high-priority tasks ultimately take longer to complete; their lingering presence quickly turns into a looming pressure. Thus, maintain the focus, maintain the balance.

3) Refer back to your goals

Take a step back and think about what you want to achieve. Often, the veterinarians who feel they do not have a work-life balance are those that don’t have a clearly defined set of goals. This results in, you guessed it, lack of control. 

Write down a few areas you wish to improve in; this could be dentistry, dermatology, or negotiation skills. Consider your trajectory: the tangible steps you will take to get from where you are now to the end goal. This will contribute to your sense of purpose, provide motivation and help you to utilise your time wisely.

Remember, everyone’s sense of ‘balance’ is completely different: this is why you must create your own tailored set of goals and trajectories. This is no place for social comparison, only self-reflection. One vet may thrive off of a long working day, another may be more productive in the mornings than they are afternoons. This is all about assessing the conditions in which you thrive, knowing your boundaries and not comparing yourself to your colleagues. Once you create your ideal conditions, there will be no stopping you.

4) Add value to your free time

What good is creating free time if it does not bring value to your life? The only way true work-life balance can be achieved is if your free time energises, revitalises and restores. This is not to ignore the de-stressing effects of watching an hour or so of television at the weekend or in the evening, but to acknowledge that excessive engagement with media can be draining in itself. Personally, I know that my blood pressure spikes whenever I engage with social media or watch a horror film. This is hardly restorative. 

How can you make your free time valuable? It is as simple as doing what makes you happy. For me, this is exercising, reading, meditating and socialising. I receive energy from these things, and I suspect you do too. Therefore, although it is tempting to zombify yourself in front of the television after a hard week’s work, doing this in excess is not restorative and will not contribute to your work-life balance. In fact, it will only exacerbate the stress.

Using your free time to focus on what makes you happy sounds like common sense, but it’s actually really clever. Picture this: you get home after a long day and meditate for ten minutes. Then, you spend time cooking a healthy meal with your partner, you write in your journal and ensure you get seven hours of sleep. Instantaneously, you are building your resilience which will make you more able to deal with stress at work, and capable of achieving more career-wise. 

Alas, you then realise that work and life are not so distinct after all. You begin to visualise ‘work’ and ‘life’ not as a battle – each one heaving at either side of the see-saw – but as a circuit board exchanging energy with each other. Work and life feed into each other, and this is where the balance comes from.

If neither your free time nor your work provides you with positive energy, then you should start asking questions: does my line of work contribute to my goals? How can I add value to my free time? What makes me happy – at work and at home? From there, you can make the positive changes needed to improve your work-life balance.

Want to learn essential skills they don't teach in vet school? Why not join our 'So You're a Vet... Now What?' course?

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