Stress and burnout – how often do we hear those words nowadays? It seems every second person is suffering the effects of stress, and burnout is a very real threat, causing days or weeks off work and untold damage to relationships, health and wellbeing while it is all unfolding.
We need to stop pushing ourselves to the very limits and recognize that a very well-designed internal system craves rest and regular recovery in addition to challenge and hard work. Vets and rehab therapists, like everyone else, thrive on a perfect blend of both!
Allow me to share my story of stress and burnout. The details may be particular, but the general trend is common, and you may recognize elements of your own circumstances in my story.
Having been married only ten months, I fell pregnant and not long afterwards had to give up my new practice, which entailed driving an average 10 000km a month to treat patients over a vast area – not feasible when heavily pregnant, or with an infant.
I landed a great job with Onlinepethealth, in which I could work from home and look after my child, as well as stay current and up to date in my field while still earning, which has been an enormous help during stressful circumstances.
While I was pregnant, my mother was diagnosed with cancer – in her face. The cancerous growth was cut out and she went through six weeks of agonizing radiation, suffering every single side effect possible. One was that her masseter muscle contracted completely, so she could no longer open her mouth and had to be fed through a stomach tube. Just as we were thinking the worst was over, the cancer came back. Twelve hours of surgery, but no radiation. A brief period of recovery followed.
And then it came back again, leading to a 14-hour surgery with multiple skin grafts and a muscle graft, three weeks of ICU, complications, another surgery, more ICU and intensive care. My mom lost so much weight it was hard to see how she would get back to a ‘normal’ life, never mind her physical disfigurement. She remained in constant pain.
At this point my little man had been born and was about two months old – so way too much hospital time for such a small and healthy infant! The most recent surgery was followed up by six weeks of chemo and radiation, and severe side effects.
Three months of relative calm, and then the cancer was back – spreading to her brain and spinal cord. Treatment options were exhausted, and she was given between six weeks and six months to live. As she could seizure at any time, or experience any number of symptoms, my brother and I both moved in with her, rotating shifts so that we could each spend a few days at our own homes every so often. I felt the stress of it; there were constant visitors (which we appreciated, but who had to be entertained and catered for – and of course, my mom’s words needed to be translated to them) and the challenge of looking after both my mother and my increasingly mobile child in an ever changing environment, as well as my Onlinepethealth work and my duties as a SAAPRA committee member. All of this became a heavy load. As time passed, the stress just seemed to increase.
My mom passed away at the end of July, and initially, all I felt was relief – Mom was no longer in pain. Also, or so I thought, I could now get back to my home, my family, my work and my life. But of course, it wasn’t quite over, and it still isn’t. We are still packing up her house and dealing with her estate. And after the first few weeks the grief really started setting in. Stress had been my constant companion, and now, though the stress is lessened, it is accompanied by the grieving process.
Anyway, here we are now.
Making a Fundamental Decision
So how did I handle it? At multiple points, I had to make a fundamental decision; was I going to push through and stay sane and whole to the end, or was I going to collapse and give up? The challenges were enormous, and I acknowledged them: in addition to all of the above tasks and duties, my son’s sleep regressed at this time, so that I was being woken every hour throughout the night for about two months. I was permanently exhausted.
I understood that I was at serious risk of burnout if I did not make some changes to my mindset, my body and my workload very quickly. So I did.
This is what helped me:
- I accepted that I am not superwoman. Sometimes I need a break, and sometimes I need help.
- Taking a break means I recognize the needs of my own body and mind. It is not weakness – it is a strength.
- I have a choice. Do I buckle under the weight on my heart, or do I look for and find a reason to keep looking ahead? I remembered that there is a bigger picture and purpose for me, and that if I fell back, I might lose my opportunity to change lives.
- Prioritize! How valuable that has been. Not everything is equally important, and it is OK to say that today, only the important things will receive my attention.
- Block time. Once my priorities were clear, it was simple enough to allocate a set amount of time to specific tasks – and to allocate a time for resting. Blocking out time ahead of the day or week can really help you gain a sense of achievement and confidence.
- Move my body. This was a big one for me. The loss of my normal exercise schedule meant that I became more and more depleted, physically and mentally. I resumed walks, sometimes runs, to get rid of pent-up emotion and get my blood flowing again. Sometimes, when my emotions start to get the better of me, I’d do a ten-minute burst of exercise instead of screaming, breaking down in tears, or diving into a chocolate. This helped with stress and grief.
- Speak to people. There is no need to suffer in silence, even when our suffering seems to make no sense whatsoever. Sharing my situation and my lowered levels of capacity for work meant friends and colleagues could help me, and it meant I felt less alone – there is always someone who cares, and someone who is going through a harder time.
- Be kind to yourself. This is a mantra to me now. My husband adopted it and often repeats it to me. We only worsen the situation when we berate ourselves for not being this, that or the other, or not getting 101 tasks done every day. So what if the laundry does not get done when it should, or the garden gets out of hand. Why are we so hard on ourselves? I can only do what I can do – no more!
So much for my own experiences with stress and burnout. What does the research say?
Dr Michael Leitner and Dr Christina Maslach identify six imbalances that cause burnout in the workplace:
- A conflict in values. Do your own core values and beliefs line up with the company you work for, and with those of your colleagues??
- A lack of control. Do you feel like you have no control over anything in your work environment? No one takes your input seriously, and you have no freedom to suggest or implement changes, or even observations?
- Insufficient rewards. You work hard, put in extra hours, go above and beyond the call of duty, are always available to clients over the phone or WhatsApp, but it is just not recognized. You feel you’re taken for granted, and on top of it all, you’re eking out the money at the end of every month.
- An excessive workload. How many hours do you work per week? How many weekends and late nights do you put in? How many lunch breaks do you miss so that you can help out a patient? And how sustainable do you think that is?
- Unfairness. Do you feel that nothing you do is good enough? Someone else always gets pulled ahead of you, or is doing better than you, or has more clients than you, or always gets the referrals.
- Breakdown of community. When we feel alone, that we have no-one to trust or speak to about cases, or about how we feel, we’re lacking that vital sense of community. We need one another, and it is essential to develop a support structure around ourselves.
As Vetrehabbers, we are easily at risk of burnout – we work long hours, we care sometimes too much, and we don’t usually get paid a great deal to change people’s lives.
So What About You?
Burnout is one of those things that we ignore until it’s too late. Like a mild overuse injury that does not receive treatment or rest, it won’t get better on its own. It just gets worse, affecting more and more areas of our lives until a traumatic break occurs.
If you are feeling any of the below symptoms, you could be at risk of burnout:
- emotionally exhausted and drained
- feeling you have no control over the things happening to you
- feeling trapped
- you just can’t carry on anymore
- struggling to sleep
- clutching at coffee, or food, or anything else to help you through the day
- feeling irritated and irrational
- feeling suddenly nervous and afraid, or hopeless
- you just don’t care about anything.
All of these can be danger signals!
I have shared a really heavy part of my life with you; doing so has been part of my own healing, but the truth is, I am motivated by you, and by the knowledge that burnout is avoidable. No one has to go through it. Your struggle might look nothing like mine, or it may be very similar – either way, please know you’re not alone.
Yes, the road ahead may be long, but the road carries on; it does not end here. Your story is still being written, and you do have control of that bigger narrative. Just choosing to survive one more day will bring you closer to a new chapter in your life.
You are not powerless in your situation – you have control over yourself. You may not be able to change your mind or your heart, but you can decide to do a few exercises instead of going for the easy solution – coffee, food, etc.
We have incredible jobs, and in that truth lies a power all its own. Hold onto that bigger picture. In addition, focus on this moment, and every moment you are in. Find something good – we’re surrounded by goodness in our clients, and their love and relationships with their pets; we’re surrounded by beauty in a simple flower or the dappled light of the sun. If there is even a drop of laughter in your vicinity, take hold of it like your life depends on it, because it does!
Just by starting to look for the good, changing the way you cope with an emotional stressor, and adding a touch of laughter to your day, you will start to change your life. And if you need to take a break, if you need to ask for help, or walk away from a situation, please – do what you need to do for your own wellbeing.
Above all, just know that you are not alone. And I don’t make that statement lightly. If you don’t have someone that you feel you can speak to, then come and speak to me, or Megan – we know the world you’re in and the pressures you might be under.