Veterinary professionals are expected to work more hours than the average UK professional. A survey published in the Veterinary Record (2018) estimated that the average full-time vet in the UK works 57 hours a week, with practice partners and owners working around 71 hours a week. With the UK working time directive limiting hours to 48 hours per week, unless you voluntarily opt out of these regulations, it’s no wonder that vets often feel like they don’t have enough time for their personal lives. Not to mention being on call during social events, being woken up in the middle of the night by an emergency or simply worrying about a patient seen earlier that day.
This was a topic of conversation for a panel at London Vet Show 2019. Hosted in the BVA Career Development stream by Melissa Donald, three panellists shared their thoughts on what to do when the work–life balance gets tough. Mary Hall, a final year veterinary student at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, Alex Davies, a surgical director of a busy London and Kent hospital, and Niall Connell, RCVS President, all with different experiences, highlighted the importance of keeping work separate from personal lives, surrounding yourselves with friends and family and prioritising what is important to you.
Mary began separating her university life and her personal life more when her friends, who had done standard three-year courses, began getting jobs and having more control over their lives outside of the university bubble. Treating university more like a job, like a place she worked, allowed her to improve her work–life balance considerably.
Despite feeling like he had less free time, finding a good balance was made easier for Alex after having kids. “I can’t answer work calls when the kids need a bath or to be fed” he pointed out. Needing specific days off or to be home on time to look after his children has forced a separation into his life.
For him, this isn’t about the amount of time you spend at work or at home; it’s about being present in both places and not bringing work stressors home and vice versa.
“Try to identify your biggest work stressors and work to minimise them,” he suggests. “Mine is that I blame myself for mistakes whether they are my fault or not. I take everything to heart and have spirals of self-doubt. I don’t think I will ever be perfect at not feeling like this, I’ve just learnt to deal with them differently. Stresses like this spill into home life and stops us from being present at home.”
Alongside her studies, the demands of her course and her extracurricular activities, Mary helps out on her family’s farm. “I threw myself into everything with the expectation that things would work out,” she explained “but my dad warned me that I was burning the candle at both ends.” For her, figuring out your priorities and creating a routine around essential things such as eating and exercising helps so that they don’t have to be squeezed in afterwards.
There are times where striking a balance may seem impossible. For Mary, this was when her dad was hospitalised for emergency surgery in the middle of calving and in the period of her OSCE exams. Any effort she had made to have a good balance went out of the window – she had to drop everything for a couple of weeks and prioritise what was most important at that time. Although those couple of weeks were not the best balance she would normally strive for, she learnt that there can be balance in a day, a week, a month – it depends on your priorities. In order to achieve a good balance, you need to realise what your own priorities are and realise that if the going gets tough and you don’t have a good balance for a period of time, that’s OK.
Alex finds exercise to be essential to feel revitalised despite being busy. He advised others to find and set aside time to do the things that recharge them. “Stress and work zap our energy reserves and without recharging we burn out,” he states. “Getting out in nature, eating and sleeping well are things that make us feel replenished. My kids have forced me to get out of the house more on my days off. Turns out, if you get them exhausted, they might actually sleep! This has all been beneficial for me as well. My hobbies also include video games, going out for a pint and watching TV. It’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with these hobbies either – as well as needing to do active things to recharge and be present in your personal life, it’s important to have some ‘me’ time too.”
Niall had a different approach to the question at hand: for him, work brought the balance to his life after he had to stop clinical practice due to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. He soon realised that having hobbies outside of work was essential, but was sitting at home not doing much for a while due to his condition.
One day, he received a message out of the blue from a previous colleague asking if he wanted to help out with a seminar at Glasgow vet school. Although the thought had never occurred to him, he claimed it to have been a life changer. He started helping with OSCEs and assessments and found joy being able to work within the veterinary profession once again. Now working at the RCVS, Niall explained pursuing this alternative career path has allowed him to find a new work–life balance he had lost previously.
All three speakers recognised the importance of having a good pastoral care network. Niall highlighted the importance of a network of peers and friends to talk to and to lean on when the going gets tough. Friends who understand what you’re going through but also people who are outside of your professional circle with whom you can completely switch off.
The balance is constantly changing and there isn’t one set answer. In Mary’s eyes, the most important thing in order to get a balance you’re happy with is feeling more accepting of when the balance isn’t quite right, and Alex emphasised that “all we can do is do our best, but we do occasionally fail. There’s no magic cure. You need to trial and error your way to finding what works for you.”