In a chronically demanding profession such as veterinary medicine, it can be hard to gauge if you’re overworking.
It’s safe to say that overworking has become normalized. This may be due (in part) to the fact that many vets are perfectionists, used to going above and beyond to achieve their goals. This is, after all, how vets get into veterinary school in the first place. Although this is admirable, being in a profession full of over-achievers is not without risk. Self-esteem and work-life balance, for example, are two areas of potential pitfall.
Research indicates that 41.2% of veterinary professionals have left a job due to work-life balance-related problems; with 29.6% citing that if they could change anything about their work, it would be their schedule. Overworking has been associated with several negative health outcomes, including depression and insomnia, and is the driver of dissatisfaction in allied professions, such as human medicine1.
Knowing all of this, what are some of the signs of an overworked vet? And what action might you take to course-correct this?
How Do I Know If I’m An Overworked Vet?
Different people have varying capacities when it comes to workload. Although some individuals can power through a 60-hour week relatively unscathed, others can experience feelings of burnout and compassion fatigue.
This is because different jobs have different demands and different humans have different coping abilities. Not to mention other demands on their time and attention. Just to add to the complexity, individuals’ circumstances are in flux, so our coping ability will likely change over time.
As a baseline, researchers have found that working above a 54-hour week can put you at increased risk of dying from conditions associated with overworking. Given that the average vet works 57-hours a week, this probably means you are working above capacity2.
What Are The Signs Of An Overworked Vet?
You’re Chronically Stressed
Big shocker- we know!
Overworking can seriously mess up our stress hormones, causing havoc within the body. This not only increases our blood pressure and cholesterol (putting us at risk of several diseases) but also sets the stage for burnout3.
If you are an overworked vet, you are probably feeling quite overwhelmed. With a caseload that never seems to end, many feel perpetually stressed and overburdened, leading to feelings of apathy and sadness. If you are emotionally depleted, burned out, or spent, this is a clear sign that something is amiss.
Your Relationships Are Taking A Hit
When we go through difficult periods in our lives, the ones who feel it the most are those we are closest to.
If you are overworking, the likelihood is that you are missing out on events in your families’ or friends’ lives or neglecting the needs of those around you. This is by no means your fault- after all, we are only human. But, given how fundamental human relationships are to our happiness, it can be hard to reconcile.
You’re Using An Emotional Crutch
If you are chronically stressed, you may turn to substances (or behaviors) like alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or any one of several short-term fixes to seek some kind of relief. According to research, around 73 percent of vets have worked with someone they suspected or knew had an abuse or addiction problem4.
Using substances to escape your reality is not a good sign or plan. The short-term relief is well documented to result in a longer-term exacerbation of problems that can unravel. According to research, working more than 40-hours a week can make you more likely to over-consume alcohol. This not only can impact your work performance but also impact your health in the long term5.
If you find yourself only able to unwind after work using any of these means, then it may be worth reflecting on why you feel the need to gain gratification or relief in the first place. You should also seek help to find more effective tools and behaviors to manage your circumstances. There are many support networks and services available to help.
You’re Working Longer Yet Not Keeping Up
Contrary to popular belief, working more does NOT make you more productive.
A Stanford research paper found that people who worked 70-hours a week did not appear to produce more work than those who worked 56-hours6. This is inevitable, given that burned-out employees are much more likely to become unmotivated, dissociated, and thoroughly dissatisfied.
While this may not quite fit the veterinary model – when we work more we see more patients so are by definition more productive. But the sentiment is not without merit. When you work longer, you become more drained, things take longer and you are more likely to make errors. Quantity does not have a linear relationship to quality. Vets and managers would be wise to be mindful of this.
You’re Experiencing Back And Neck Pain
Lifting dogs, bending over the dental table, craning forward to type notes… the options to trash a veterinarian’s back are many.
But add in overworking and things get worse. In a study from the Occupational & Environmental Medicine Journal, researchers found that employees who worked above a certain number of hours were at greater risk of chronic back pain. Overworked vets may also, therefore, be at risk of falling into a vicious cycle of chronic pain and stress7.
I Think I am Overworked- What Do I Do?
If you think you are an overworked vet, there are a few things you can do.
First, talk to your manager. At the end of the day, you are a valuable asset and they will most likely want to help you out to keep you on the team. Discuss how you are feeling, and explore whether mitigations can be made in terms of your workload.
You should also look to manage things that are within your control- such as stress.
Dr. Sharon Grossman, a Psychologist who specializes in burnout says, ‘If burnout is about chronic stress, and stress is about perception, then if you work on your mind and learn to think differently, [you come to] understand that you actually have control [over your life]’.
‘True control is having control over the one and only thing you can control – yourself.’
According to Dr. Grossman, by working on our thought patterns and how we perceive stress, we can ultimately change our feelings. To learn how you can do this, listen to her Blunt Dissection episode below.
Additionally, we recommend scheduling an appointment with a medical professional if you are experiencing back problems. Seeking the help of a mental health professional or coach can also help you plan a way forward to a better future where both you and your career can co-exist.
If amendments are not possible, perhaps it is time to consider other options in other places. In an employee’s market, the opportunity to find a fit for you and your circumstances has never been better.
If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy: What To Do When You Are Unsatisfied With Your Job.
1- ‘Investigation of factors affecting recruitment and retention in the UK ….’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32817568/. Accessed 19 Jul. 2021.
2- ‘How overwork is literally killing us – BBC Worklife.’ 17 May. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210518-how-overwork-is-literally-killing-us. Accessed 19 Jul. 2021.
3- ‘How overwork is literally killing us – BBC Worklife.’17 May. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210518-how-overwork-is-literally-killing-us. Accessed 19 Jul. 2021.
4- ‘Dark shadows: Drug abuse and addiction in the veterinary workplace.’ 15 Jun. 2016, https://www.dvm360.com/view/dark-shadows-drug-abuse-and-addiction-veterinary-workplace. Accessed 27 Jul. 2021.
5- ‘Long working hours and alcohol use: systematic review … – The BMJ.’ 13 Jan. 2015, https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.g7772. Accessed 20 Jul. 2021.
6- ‘The Productivity of Working Hours – IZA – Institute of Labor Economics.’ http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf. Accessed 20 Jul. 2021.
7- ‘Back pain – Causes – NHS.’ https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/back-pain/causes/. Accessed 20 Jul. 2021.