Burnout: Causes and Solutions, Part I
A few blogs ago, I mentioned a phenomenon many of us know about, either from a colleague or from having experienced it ourselves: BurnOut.
I will call it affectionately “BO” for purposes of abbreviation, plus the fact that really, it stinks!
Let’s first look at a few definitions of BO, and see how it relates to the work we do.
Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest, especially in one’s career. ~ Patricia Smith
Burnout is a result of frustration, powerlessness, and inability to achieve work goals. ~ Charles R. Figley
Even if you didn’t have quite the right wording, I’m sure you could have guessed the basic lingo in these definitions, especially if you’ve felt this way before. Once when I was giving a presentation on Compassion Fatigue (similar, but different than BO), I asked the audience what did they think the difference was between the two. One attendee said, “BurnOut is something you can’t do anything about.” I imagine many of us feel this way, and unfortunately BO drives some people away from the veterinary profession when it happens. But let’s take a closer look at BurnOut, and see what we CAN do about it! Over the next series of blogs, I’ll take each “cause” of BurnOut identified by Robert G. Roop, Ph.D., and Charles R. Figley, Ph.D. The more we know, the more we can prevent, prepare for, or prevail over BurnOut in our professional careers.
Cause #1: Conflict between individual values and organizational goals and demands.
(Part I in a series of four)
I’m actually glad that this is listed as the first cause, because not only do I believe it’s one of the biggest components of BO, but it’s also a cause that we can work to prevent from the very beginning of our career and at each subsequent place of employment. First you have to do some homework, and figure out what are YOUR individual values. These will also develop over time, and exposure to good and not-so-good veterinary medicine. Author and consultant Jim Wilson, in his book involving veterinary ethics, lists several issues that we should examine to help determine our personal ethics within the veterinary profession. Adding to that list, here are some of Wilson’s ideas plus issues I’ve also encountered:
“Convenience” (or “Healthy”) Euthanasia: depending on your personal ethics, the definition of “convenience” may be different than that of the practice owner or associate veterinarian. This is becoming such a hot topic in our profession that it can hardly be ignored, but how many of us ask about this issue when we interview a prospective employer? That’s right, WE should be interviewing our potential EMPLOYER. Situations of this nature could involve euthanasia for behavior issues, for elderly but not ailing pets, the necessity of the owner to move or scale down their residence or reduce mouths to feed at home, or unwillingness to provide care for chronic health conditions. Are there circumstances when you feel it’s okay, and others you do not? This can evoke a powerful emotional reaction when your value’s line is crossed.
Quality of Surgical Care: this topic would cover questions such as: is general anesthesia given to perform dentals, is aseptic technique used to place intravenous catheters, is a sterile surgery pack used to perform procedures without being reused on multiple patients, what ARE the sterilization techniques in fact?
Level of Medical Care: this topic would cover questions such as: how conservative or aggressive are the doctors with diagnostic procedures and tests, what is the recommended vaccination protocol, what are the options for advanced critical or surgical care, are patients hospitalized overnight without supervision, and in what circumstances, are patients referred to a 24-hour or overnight facility when it’s condition is deemed severe enough?
Flexibility of Financial Care: this topic would cover questions such as: what groups are typically given standard discounts such as elderly clients, rescue animals, and service animals; what is the payment policy for clients who cannot afford the recommendations, how are outstanding collections handled, and is there a charitable or non-profit “Angel Fund” in the practice to help pay for patient care?
These are just some of the topics, and some of the questions, that may form the basis of your own personal values within the profession of veterinary medicine. If you’ve never taken the time to think about your values, now’s the time…before you are hired into a practice where you find yourself either compromising your values or leaving within the first month or two when you realize it’s not a good ethical fit for you.
On the other side of this equation is the practice’s organizational goals and demands. The only way you’ll discover what these are is to ASK, preferably before you accept a position! To uncover the practice’s goals, ask about the business’s mission statement, vision for the future, or practice objectives. If none of these exist, then frame these questions to the interviewer and find out more about where the practice is headed. You want to be sure and catch a ride on a practice that is going in your same direction! In other words, if you are a progressive-minded technician who wants to see the most up-to-date and revolutionary protocols used, then you’ll want to accept a position where this is also important to the practice owner(s).
As far as organizational demands, this would mean the demands placed on YOU for the position that you are considering. Ask for a job description for the position you are considering. The best managed practices will already incorporate this step into the interview process, but if not, you must take the initiative. Read the job description over well, perhaps before the “in person” interview or after the interview but BEFORE you accept the position. Take your time with this description, and make sure you can picture yourself doing these tasks on a daily basis. Note any questions or concerns you have, and explore those before joining the practice’s employee roster. Also ask about the typical frequency and amount of overtime worked in that position, how many others do the same job at the same time as you and on different shifts (to help determine how much they will depend on you during times of unexpected short-staffing), the weekend schedule and also the holiday schedule for employees and how holidays are distributed among the staff members, the turnover rate (which could indicate that the practice overloads it’s employees if they turn over people often…however, turnover in the right amount is healthy and provides new energy and ideas), what additional “projects” have been assigned in the past to your type of position, and other questions that you may brainstorm from positions you’ve had in the past that were overwhelming…to help you eliminate that situation again.
Finding the right place to work is a growth process. In other words, as you work one place and see what you do NOT like about that employer, you will be more careful accepting the next position without checking out the details. It’s more of a process of elimination sometimes, because it’s impossible to know all of your values until you have more experience under your belt, and it’s difficult to know what type of employer you want until you see how bad it could be (sad, but true). So do your homework! Remember, the hiring process is not just the time for them to interview YOU, but also an opportunity for you to interview THEM about the practice to ensure that you are a good fit!
Want to read more? Part 2 is available here!
Ms. Dobbs would like to acknowledge Figley and Roop's book Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community for providing the list of Burn Out causes. The book was published by the Humane Society in 2006.