Be back soon: How to take a sabbatical from your veterinary practice
If a three-day weekend or short vacation isn't easing the stress of practice life, you may need more. Here's how one veterinarian found professional renewal through a two-month sabbatical.
There's usually at least one time in your life when you realize that a few days off isn't cutting it anymore. The emotional, intellectual, and physical challenges of practice become too much. The standard vacation fails to recharge the batteries. And recharging is a crucial aspect of staying healthy and maintaining enthusiasm for the practice of veterinary medicine. There is a solution. For some, the extended break or sabbatical may be just what the doctor ordered.
I know considering a lengthy break may be scary. You've got questions: How will a long break affect my role in the workplace? How much money will my practice and I lose? How long can I really take off? What will I do during a sabbatical? The answers vary, but I promise they're there. Here's my sabbatical story. Does it inspire you to give one a try?
Face the truth
For me, the idea of taking some serious time off from work started in spring 2010. Every year from March to May, I volunteer my time refinishing donated furniture as part of a fundraising project for my children's high school. I join 10 other parents to strip and sand, and the conversation inevitably turns to work. I must have been grumbling a bit too much about how tired I was of running a veterinary hospital, practicing medicine, and keeping employees and clients happy. Certainly, the economy hadn't helped my attitude.
That's when BJ, a nurse practitioner and the coordinator of our furniture refinishing group, spoke up: "You're burned out." The idea alarmed me, so I quickly retorted, "I am not burned out." I was still in control of my workload, wasn't I?
I'd never thought of myself as being prone to burnout, but I had to admit that my practice life wasn't very satisfying at the time. It was becoming more of a struggle to find new business, control expenses, and stay on budget—all with the hope that hospital numbers would match the year before. I'd practiced 30 years, 26 of which I'd spent opening and developing my practice into a well-respected five-veterinarian hospital. Were the breaks I'd taken over the years too short? Many times those vacations hadn't really been vacations at all. I'd added a few days away to a continuing education or management meeting and thought about work much of the time. I'd often kept up with work e-mail and caught up on journal reading while I was out of town. Just when I would start to relax, my time off would be over and I was back to work. Still, I wasn't ready to admit that this was an issue I needed to address.
Several nights later I was back with the furniture refinishing group and again we worked and talked about our jobs—and I complained. BJ repeated her proclamation: "You're burned out." This time my defensiveness gave way to thoughtfulness. Maybe there was something to that. Maybe I needed a real break. A real long break. But as a practice owner, how could I pull that off? I decided to figure it out.
Take the plunge
The next day I nabbed my practice manager and gave her the news: "Take me off the schedule for September and October." Saying that to my manager was easy enough. But now I needed to work out how to announce the sabbatical to my partners, staff, and clients.
As it turned out, everyone was very supportive when I revealed my plans. Not necessarily thrilled with the idea of covering for me, but supportive. Still, certain questions nagged at me. Would we need a relief veterinarian, and could we afford to hire one? Would my absence put too much strain on the team I left behind? Would patient care end up suffering?
I'd been especially afraid of telling my long-standing clients about the sabbatical. I worried they'd see an extended break as a sign of weakness, a sign that Dr. Fisher couldn't hack it any more. But most clients agreed that some time off was in order. In fact, one client, a psychologist by trade, praised me. "I tell many of my patients that this is an option for them, and look—you're doing it!" she said. "That's fantastic!"
And so the idea of a sabbatical became real. The decision was made. The coworkers and clients were informed. Now it was time for logistics.
Planning for my absence from work wasn't too difficult. I had three other veterinarians who were partners in practice ownership plus a full-time associate. I knew things would run smoothly as far as management and patient care were concerned. However, all four of these other doctors worked full time and were strong producers. With a busy practice, when any one of us was gone, productivity dropped. I knew we needed to make some hard decisions about how to fill the two-month gap and still meet our production goals.
We didn't want to hire a relief veterinarian, so the remaining four doctors decided to rearrange schedules, drop a surgery day, schedule client appointments for two-doctor, not three-doctor, shifts, and work a few more hours here and there. They worked hard to make it happen, and their efforts paid off. Our production was down, but not dramatically. Patient care wasn't affected, and clients were happy.
Plan the break
With quickly developing plans in place at the practice to cover my absence, I was faced with a question that a type-A veterinarian like myself seldom faces: What do I do with my time off, and how do I remember how to relax?
I realized that all my personal habits, hobbies, and pursuits involved some type of work. Working out. Running races. Doing yard work and maintaining the house. Volunteering my time. Writing articles. Lecturing on exotic companion mammal medicine. Yikes! I really did need some down time.
In trying to figure out how to unwind, I asked myself, "What do I really like to do?" Traveling, hiking, outdoor activities, and reading all came to mind, so I planned my time off around those pursuits. For the first month, I organized a 24-day trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The overseas trip included one week of hiking the Dales Way, an 81-mile footpath through England's Yorkshire Dales National Park. I was bringing along my 23-year-old daughter, Emily, who had just graduated from the University of Maryland and was working for me while trying to figure out the next chapter of her life.
The hike was pastoral—true James Herriott country. The trail led us through river valleys scattered with small rural farms and villages in which sturdy stone and slate-roofed buildings guard narrow, cobbled streets. Sheep grazed on lush meadows that blanketed the verdant moors rising above every horizon. With such breathtaking scenery, I was in heaven and it was easy to forget about work.
I dedicated the second month of my sabbatical to spontaneity and a road trip. At first I worried about this much unstructured time. I like the feeling of being busy from sunrise to sundown and beyond. I often go to sleep counting off the accomplishments of the day. Would I be able to relax and enjoy a whimsical approach to each day? I now know the answer is yes.
For the bulk of my second sabbatical month, my 5-year-old mixed border collie Dickens and I took an 18-day car-camping trip. The two of us hit the road in my 1995 Land Cruiser and headed to the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Indian summer weather and the dramatic colors of autumn made for a perfect venue. I experienced a little of what it was like for our ancestors as they followed the Wilderness Trail into unmapped territory on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. I saw the sites where later generations fought to divide or unify the nation during the Civil War.
As I was traversing Appalachia, it finally dawned on me how lucky I was to be a veterinarian. Practicing veterinary medicine has had its challenges, but it's a rewarding and worthwhile career. Thoughts of the daily stresses slowly melted away, and I remembered how satisfying our profession is. The sabbatical was working its magic. My frame of mind really was improving. The time off had been well worth it.
When I returned to work in November, having been gone for two months, everything was business as usual. The doctors and staff had managed well. Despite my initial fears, I didn't return to chaos or any extra work. "Glad to have you back," they told me. And that was it. It took a week or two for me to adjust to the structure of work again, but I felt truly refreshed. I realized again my love for veterinary medicine, and I knew I could manage my life outside work without feeling guilty for shortchanging my practice. There's a great big world out there, and the right balance between time in your practice and out of it will renew and energize.
Dr. Fisher is co-owner of Pet Care Veterinary Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va. Please send your comments and questions to email@example.com.
Tips on arranging a sabbatical
Here are a few ideas for how to make your time off go smoothly:
> Don't second-guess your decision. A sabbatical is important for you and your practice.
> Be sure everyone knows this is a break, not a taste of early retirement.
> Make a list of things you enjoy doing and plan your time off around them.
> Involve partners and associates in the planning process. Let them call the shots. They're the ones who will be left working.
> Decide together what schedules will work for all involved. Make continuity in patient care and client service your top priority.
> Be supportive of decisions made by your coworkers in the planning process. Don't try to run things in your absence.
> Let clients know what's going on and that you'll be back.