This year, the coronavirus pandemic meant I had a month off from my work as a veterinary surgeon. The opportunity to step back from the profession gave me time to reflect on my career, my position and my overall happiness.
And that’s when I realized.
I was so much happier when I wasn’t working.
This was a truly horrifying lightbulb moment for me- but it was undeniable. Amid one of the most disruptive global events since I was born, living with the stress of wondering if I would ever see toilet roll or dried pasta again, I was happier than I had ever been in my adult life.
It wasn’t the feeling of being on holiday or the short term relief of a few days off work. I had more energy, I laughed more, I started getting out of bed earlier and everyone I spoke to (and I mean EVERYONE) would comment on how happy I sounded. Even to the point where I would start to get annoyed at them for noticing my happiness.
I wasn’t so miserable, was I?
And in many ways, this broke my heart.
I love being a vet, I think it is a career that can be incredibly rewarding to both the individual and the communities we serve. Helping people help their animals, what could be better? I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t work out what it was.
For probably the first time in my life, I did some proper reflection on what I was doing and, more importantly, why I was doing it.
Up until now, reflection was just something I did because I had to. Reflecting on my work is part of my training but I ALWAYS left it to the last minute. I found it boring and quite frankly, didn’t see the point. I would write things like:
‘This was good because it taught me something’ or ‘this helped me learn a valuable lesson’ blah, blah, blah- the sort of stuff that didn’t mean anything to anyone.
I never really took the time to truly think about it but wrote what I assumed someone reading my work would want to hear. But this time I tried to put some real energy and time into it.
After all, what did I have to lose?
I spoke to friends and family and we talked about the issues I was having. Although they were supportive, I never got the feeling that they understood. Only other vets seemed to get it and even then, no one had any solutions. In fact, I got the impression that most vets felt the same way. That the profession was in some way broken for the professionals who inhabit it and I had to get on with it or move on to something else.
But I couldn’t accept that.
How can a profession that does so much good, not bring joy to the people who commit their lives to it?
So I went looking for help. I talked to my doctor about how I was feeling and they set me up with some counselling.
Now, I am not one to be offering mental health advice (that is best left to the professionals) but I will say that it was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.
We had a chat about my circumstances. I explained my situation and complained (a lot) about my job and the frustrations I had with it (although, this is something I try hard not to do in my personal or professional life, as I feel it makes me worse off).
At the end of my first session, she said something I’ll never forget.
‘This place (my work) doesn’t match up with any of your values’.
And she was right. I wanted to help everyone who came through the door but I was constantly frustrated because I worked in a clinic that focused on really high-end veterinary care. This meant I couldn’t help everyone, because not everyone could afford it.
And it was driving me mad.
I wanted to make the team feel valued, but I worked somewhere where communication wasn’t a high priority. I wanted to be innovative and find new ways of helping people on whatever budget they had. But I felt constantly constrained by a corporate policy that determined what medications I could and couldn’t use.
As vets, I think we ignore our values concerning the work we do or at least compromise them. We turn up every day because that is the oath we took when we graduated. It doesn’t matter how difficult the client, how angry the animal, or how horrible the working environment- we commit to putting the needs of the animals we treat before our own.
(Enjoying this article on ‘Why I considered leaving veterinary medicine?’, click here to read more about whether being a vet is worth it).
We stay late because a cat needs us, we put up with toxic work environments because, if not us, who would help this dog with a broken leg? And we get up and go again tomorrow because that’s what we promised to do.
It certainly never crossed my mind to look for a practice that emphasized team building, even though it was important to me.
Why didn’t I ask at the interview about what the practice does to encourage team bonding? Looking back it seems ridiculous, but it never even crossed my mind.
Values are something I am only beginning to discover and I am no expert on them. But they have helped to redirect my focus and reignite my love for veterinary medicine.
Although my last job was filled with lovely people, it didn’t fit with my values. Now, I have found something new that does fit and I am all the better for it.
I want to do something that I know helps the people that are struggling the most and at this moment, I think the people in the most pain are the vets themselves.
Although I considered leaving veterinary medicine, I can never really see myself giving up my work as a vet. I want to use my time to help teams that are only just surviving to live happier and healthier lives… because I can’t accept for one minute that it needs to be this hard.
As I reflect on the last year while writing this blog, I am acutely aware of an area of my life I completely ignored up until 2020. It sounds crazy, but I have only considered that I have values that form part of my personality in the past six months.
When we have these values in our lives, we hardly notice them. But when they are gone, we become angry and frustrated. I understand better now why I wasn’t enjoying my career and am just starting to learn how to put it right.
I would encourage anyone who isn’t having the best time in practice to do the same.
Give yourself room to breathe, reflect on the values you hold as a person, and use them to plan what you do next.
It has worked for me.