The fabled work-life balance.
Although we all love to talk about it, does anyone actually have it?
Work-life balance is often cited as a huge stressor for veterinarians and is the main reason why professionals are leaving veterinary medicine.
Yet, as a collective, it is something we all strive to achieve, albeit the obvious signs that it doesn’t exist.
But what is the reality behind this tall tale, can vets have it all? Or is having a work-life balance simply a myth?
The Truth About Work-Life Balance In Veterinary Medicine
The brutal truth is that work-life balance is a fallacy.
Unconvinced? Let’s walk through the average day of a vet.
Although work-hour estimates vary, back in 2018, Vet Records estimated that full-time vets in the UK were working (on average) for 57 hours a week. This number went up to an eye-watering 71 hours for practice owners. If a vet was working a 9-5 (albeit unlikely, but for this exercise let’s pretend it exists) that’s an 11.4 hour day.
This is not only crazy, it is also illegal in the UK1.
Whilst the more optimistic of readers may be thinking, well, that gives me a few hours of free time to relax- consider the additional hours that the average person squanders on everyday tasks.
During a typical day, the average person cleans for about half an hour, commutes for about 59 minutes, and spends an hour preparing food. This doesn’t even include childcare responsibilities234.
The fact is, vets have so little free time that sleeping seems like liberty.
And although time-management strategies and healthy boundaries can benefit workers to an extent, they can only do so much.
No matter the job, there will always be times where your work bleeds into your personal life. Particularly as a vet, there are rarely times where you are completely off duty.
If Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Exist, Where Does The Term Come From?
The term work-life balance was popularized back in the 1980s.
As more women entered the workforce, issues regarding home and life became more prevalent. Historically, work and home had been separate entities. Now, women were having to fulfill traditional roles (such as childcare responsibilities) whilst also balancing full-time jobs.
This problem sparked several researchers to start looking at ‘work-life’ issues. By the mid-’80s, institutions such as IBM began to issue work-life surveys.‘Work-life’ roundtables and leadership councils soon followed.
Media outlets, such as Working Mother, propagated the idea that women could ‘have it all’, both personally and professionally.
However, the reality was the fallacy of work-life balance placed blame from institutions to individuals, who were now chastising themselves for not ‘effectively managing’ their time enough to be able to partake in leisure5.
This is particularly true for working parents, who may experience a lot of guilt as a result of not being present for their children.
This belief is reflected in the data, with 43% of parents reporting feeling bad for prioritizing their work over family6.
If Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Exist- Am I Doomed to Burnout?
Not at all, we just need to change the way we think about work and life.
When we talk about work/life balance, we assume that life equates to happiness, and work equals misery. We pit the two against each other like they are opposing forces, fighting for our time.
But work is life. And what do we do when we’re dissatisfied with our life? We try to maximize the things we love.
We should strive for work-life integration, not balance. Discard the notion that you need to strive for equilibrium, it’s a lie. Instead, embrace that work can bring joy as much as it can bring misery (the same can be said of ‘life’!).
What do you enjoy about your job? How can you do more of that? If you derive very little pleasure from your work? This should be a wake-up call.
Consider what makes you happy. Why did you become a vet in the first place? If spending time with your family is important to you, can your workplace accommodate for a more flexible schedule? No? You may need to re-evaluate your priorities.
If your current job diminishes the light that led you into veterinary medicine in the first place, pursue a career that will reignite it- and help you fall back in love again.
In veterinary medicine, the issue of work-life balance is very much self-propagated.
It’s a vicious cycle. The profession is constantly understaffed, meaning that others have to step up and work more to fill in the gaps. As a result, these individuals become overburdened and stressed- sometimes quitting entirely.
To break this pattern, we not only need to better integrate our personal and work lives but change the structures which systematically push people to their limits.
If you would like to learn more about work/life integration, read this: ‘You’ve heard of work-life balance, but what about work-life integration?’
1- ‘Finding a good work–life balance | Veterinary Practice.’ 5 Feb. 2020, https://veterinary-practice.com/article/finding-a-good-work-life-balance. Accessed 26 May. 2021.
2- ‘• UK: average time spent cleaning one’s home by region 2019 ….’ https://www.statista.com/statistics/878429/average-time-spent-cleaning-one-s-home-by-region-united-kingdom-uk/. Accessed 26 May. 2021.
3-‘Average commute now takes 59 minutes with workers travelling for ….’ 15 Nov. 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/average-commute-time-59-minutes-record-work-tuc-a9204031.html. Accessed 26 May. 2021.
4- ‘Average person spends ‘half as much time’ cooking as parents ….’ 26 Feb. 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/home-cooking-meal-time-kitchen-microwave-parents-a9361236.html. Accessed 26 May. 2021.
5-‘The dishonest myth of work-life balance | Workable.’ https://resources.workable.com/stories-and-insights/work-life-balance-myth. Accessed 27 May. 2021.
6-‘Parents struggle with remote learning while working from home: ‘I’m ….’ 17 Sept. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/17/remote-learning-why-parents-feel-theyre-failing-with-back-to-school-from-home.html. Accessed 27 May. 2021.