When the love is gone: Fighting burnout


That's it-you've had it. When you just can't take your job at the veterinary clinic anymore, learn how to beat these top three reasons for work burnout.

Have you uttered any of these disconcerting phrases lately?

  • "I dread going to work."

  • "I have no interest in exceeding expectations; it's all I can do to survive another day."

  • "I am consistently irritated by my co-workers."

  • "Work isn't fun anymore."

  • "I feel drained at work."

Firstline asked what burns you out the most

If so, you're probably experiencing work burnout. But you can love your job again. Almost 90 percent of veterinary team members get burned out for one of three reasons. Here are the main culprits, along with ways to rekindle your passion for working at your veterinary practice.

No. 1 soul-crusher: Co-worker conflict

Veterinary team members often spend more time with co-workers than their own family. That's why conflict with a colleague can be so emotionally and physically draining. If thoughts like, "She drives me crazy," and, "I can't stand working with him," echo through your mind, your frustration might dominate your work life and even follow you home to pollute your personal life as well. There are steps to take to improve difficult situations with the co-workers who drive you crazy.

What not to do

Gossip. You might think venting about the problem employee would make you feel better. That's not true. Hashing over someone's faults only feeds your anger and dislike—and feelings of burnout—and creates bigger issues in the long run.

Get sucked in. If your team members generate a negative vibe, don't participate. When you join in—or even just listen to—the complaining, you're contributing to feelings of resentment and anger sweeping across the entire practice.

Avoid addressing the issue. This is a sure-fire way to make a big deal out of a small one.

How to improve the situation

Identify and address the problem. Until you pinpoint what's bothering you, it's difficult to take steps towards resolution. "I know the problem. My co-workers are mean and nasty," you say. Realize that this blanket statement isn't accurate. You get along with at least a couple team members, and there are one or two who upset you the most. Identify them and pay attention to what they do that frustrates you.

Talk to those people and depersonalize the issue by focusing on the specific actions that derail you. Keep the discussion supportive and team-focused, and use a friendly tone the whole time. Say something like, "When people talk to me while I'm on the phone, it drives me crazy because I can't concentrate on helping the client. If you need to correct what I'm saying, please tell me after I hang up. Then I'll call the client back if necessary."

Of course, just raising the issue doesn't guarantee a resolution. However, if you do nothing, nothing will change. By moving to end your workplace wars, you'll feel more connected and refreshed.

Concentrate on what matters. You don't need to be friends with team members or even like them. But you do need to work with them. So work with them. Do what's necessary to give your best to clients and patients. When conflict happens, repeat the phrase, "Every client, every pet, every time." After all, they're the reasons you accepted the job in the first place. Don't give your relationships—or lack thereof—with your co-workers the power to take the joy out of your work, which makes a difference for thousands of pets and their owners each year. Fight for the wonderful parts of your job and spend your energy in ways that make you proud of what you do.

No. 2 morale-squasher: Being overworked

During this recession, many hospitals have downsized to balance their budgets. Your manager might have asked you to handle additional duties for the same—or less—pay. This isn't desirable; however, it's sometimes necessary to help the business survive. If you feel frazzled, consider yourself fortunate to still have a job. Do your best to keep a positive attitude and appreciate what you do have—and try these suggestions for managing your workload.

What not to do

Complain. Identifying challenges in the workplace is reasonable, but be careful. Voicing your frustration to team members who can't change the situation is useless. In fact, it's destructive to team morale and eventually compromises the medical services your practice provides patients.

Shirk your responsibilities. When you're feeling overtaxed, you might feel the urge to do less. But shutting down on the job doesn't prove anything—except that you're willing to let down your patients, your team, and yourself. Continuing to do the best job possible shows your employer that you're worth the raise and rewards when the economy and practice recover.

How to improve the situation

Seek to balance life and work. All work and no play make life miserable and burnout more likely. You need to pay the bills, but you don't need to live for your work—even when you're totally dedicated to caring for pets. To uphold your work responsibilities while also getting the time off you need to stay sane and healthy, you should talk with the manager who creates the schedules. When making your request, be reasonable about what needs to be done to cover shifts, protect your personal time, and keep a positive attitude. Say, "I am unable to work late every night. I am willing to work late three nights a week for 90 days while we get through this tough time. By August 1, I really need to get back to one or two late nights a week. Would that be helpful?"

When you bring your ideas for a solution, the conversation changes from a complaint session to a problem-solving session. Keep in mind that your ideas may not pan out for a variety of reasons, and that's OK. Remember that simply working towards a solution makes even the worst situations more bearable.

Admit when you're overwhelmed. Are you able to say "no" when your workload is too heavy? The abilities to pitch in and to ask for help are equally important. In fact, it's a sign of strength when people can ask for help. And you must ask for assistance; stress is a personal emotion, so don't assume others know you're stressed. If there's no one to help, talk with your supervisor. Share your good intentions and concerns for the practice, which include taking care of yourself. After all, quality suffers when you're physically or mentally unable to manage your duties.

No. 3 mood-mangler: Difficult clients

The opportunity to care for pets comes with people at the other end of the leash. Your clients aren't experts in veterinary medicine, which is why they come to your practice. Add limited medical knowledge and even limited resources to concern for pets, and these clients can be challenging. It's not acceptable for clients to be belligerent, but communication barriers and high emotion can make the nicest people seem nasty. Keep in mind, you do share a goal: commitment to the pet. Bridge the gap between you by focusing on caring for the pet. Also check out this advice.

What not to do

Take it personally. When you engage in defensive or argumentative behavior with clients, you distract yourself from the issue. Plus you add another layer—your attitude—to the client's perceived problem.

Try to solve it before listening. If you don't allow clients to fully air their complaints, you may miss the entire point. For example, if you expect a client is complaining about price, you'll start your spiel about the practice's fair and competitive fees and you'll miss the fact that the client doesn't understand why you completed additional blood work before anesthesia.

Recite "our policy is . . . " Hiding behind this statement erects a brick wall between you and the client.

How to improve the situation

Work to protect relationships. Usually, in difficult situations, clients are asking you to right a wrong so they can feel comfortable doing business with you. They want to come to your practice, otherwise they'd just silently leave. If you're able to resolve issues above and beyond their expectations, you potentially bond clients for life—and they may refer their friends and neighbors. So, working for a resolution is worth it. Now here's how to do it:

First respond with, "Thank you for sharing your concern. Please explain what happened from your perspective so I'm sure I understand the challenge." Then listen carefully and work to resolve the problem. Stay calm, speak in low tones without raising your voice, and slow down your vocal pace. This de-escalates the situation, making it less upsetting for the client—and you. End the conversation sincerely: "Thank you for bringing this to our attention. If you hadn't highlighted it, we would not have known it was a problem. We will talk about it at our next staff meeting and take the opportunity to improve our services for you and others."

Keeping your cool can be tough. Remember this: Customers aren't always right, but you can't shove mistakes in their faces. For example, you call to confirm Mr. Jones' 9 a.m. appointment, which he insists is at 9:30. Agree to have Mr. Jones come in at 9:30. (He doesn't need to know you're adjusting.) You resolve potential conflict by working in two appointments at that time.

Get help. If you feel ill equipped to handle client complaints, talk to your manager. He or she might be able to provide training and clarify your authority to resolve issues. For example, are you authorized to give away certain services to appease upset clients? When should you pass complaints to the manager? Knowing the policies will provide the support you need to do a good job.

Solve repetitive problems. If clients are constantly upset, try to find a common thread among their complaints. For example, if most pet owners object to your prices, you and your team members probably aren't communicating the value of your services. Once you've identified the source of clients' dissatisfaction, you can take your solutions to the manager or suggest you discuss ideas at your next team meeting. Nothing will help you go from a hate-love relationship with clients than eliminating disagreements altogether.

You can see that the trick to beating burnout is a willingness to calmly confront the difficult co-workers, exhausting work schedule, or troublesome clients ruining your workday. By doing so, you'll rediscover on-the-job joy and change from a cantankerous cat to a free-wheeling feline once again.

Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a management recruiter and coach with Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich.

Rick Schulkey is a practice manager in Madison Heights, Mich. He also works with Bridging the Gap as a management speaker and coach.

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