From the VetPartners Experts: Success, Stress, and Burnout in Vet Med

Feb 14, 2019 at 3:42 pm
Josh Vaisman

There’s a formula for success many of us recognize, and it goes something like this:

  • Step 1: Work your ass off
  • Step 2: Make some money
  • Step 3: Rinse and repeat

Boom! Success.

I used to believe it. In my mind, the harder I worked, the more money I’d make, and, as a result, the happier I’d be. It’s a recognizable recipe, and I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Until one morning, in the middle of making scrambled eggs, I broke down in tears. Turning to my shocked wife, I simply said, “I can’t handle it anymore.” I had reached burnout.

I’ve since learned there’s a better way to find success, and it involves flipping the script on how we typically approach things in veterinary medicine. In this article, I’ll tell you a little bit about why we think about success and happiness wrong, how that applies to us in veterinary medicine, and what we can do to flip the script and approach things in a healthier way.

Money doesn’t buy happiness

In his famous TED Talk, happiness researcher Shawn Achor told us we don’t reach happiness because of success, we succeed because of happiness. It turns out the old adage, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” is true. It’s counterintuitive for many of us (it certainly was for me), but research in a variety of social and biological sciences is showing that the human body, including the brain, is primed for optimal performance when the motivation is intrinsic.

When we think things like, If I just get XYZ, I’ll be happy, we are creating extrinsic goals and trying our well-being to reaching them. When such a goal requires any level of concentration and effort beyond the mundane, it makes the brain and body unhappy. Why? Because it puts us in a state of chronic stress and begins depleting our psychological resources.

I like to think of this as the Donut Dilemma.

I love donuts. Yes, I know… you do, too. But, you don’t fully understand what I’m saying here. I LOVE donuts.

Of course, I limit my consumption of them, but, every so often, I’m overcome with the thought, Man, it sure would make me happy to eat a donut. So, I break down and buy one. And, for a short time while I’m savoring the delicious pastry, I do feel pretty good. But then, I swallow the last bit and almost immediately think, I sure do wish that had been a bigger donut. You know that feeling.

As soon as I’ve reached the goal (e.g., eating the donut), my brain is looking for the next one.

Case in point: Positive psychology researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky surveyed several people making roughly $30,000 a year and asked them, “How much money do you need to make to feel truly happy?” The average response was $50,000. She then asked the same question to people making $100,000 a year. Logically, one might think these people might be twice as happy as those making $50,000. Alas, on average, they said they would need to make about $250,000. What about people making a cool million annually? Well, those folks felt they would need to make $3 million a year to feel “truly happy.”

Hedonic adaptation

Our brains are incredibly adept at adapting to external stimuli and circumstances. All of us have walked into a room with a strange odor. Ever notice how, after a few minutes, the odor seems to disappear? That’s a form of physiological adaptation. When it comes to things like emotions and feelings, our brains are also wired for what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. The raise to $50k feels great right now. But in short order, it just feels “normal,” and we begin looking for another raise.

And, we do this in veterinary medicine. All. The. Time. Some examples:

  • If I just get into vet/tech school, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just graduate, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just get a job in a vet hospital, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just get a raise, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just see one more client, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just learn this new skill, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just get a day off, I’ll be happy.
  • If I just improve my/the hospital’s ADT/new client numbers/gross revenue/net income, I’ll be happy.

Any of those sound familiar? They do to me, because I subscribed to almost all of them. And, I actually succeeded at many of them. And still, I burnt out.

Flip the script: Seek external results by way of internal motivators

The problem with these kinds of goals is they are seeking an internal result (happiness) by way of an external motivator (e.g., getting a raise). We need to flip the script and begin building habits of seeking external results (impact) by way of internal motivators (meaning). I’ll explain.

Our brains are hardwired for purpose. When we are behaving in ways that contribute to the betterment of others, the “happiness trifecta”of neurotransmitters begin surging through our bodies. As a result, areas of the brain primed for innovation, creativity, learning, and social connection turn on. We also build psychological reserves of resilience and feel motivated and energized. Quite literally, when we feel we are living purposefully, we find meaning in the work we do and, as a result, “feel good.” Unlike with my donut addiction, our brains don’t adapt as quickly to this sense of well-being. And it doesn’t stop there:

Organizations that cultivate environments in which purpose and meaning are front-and-center are more profitable, see stronger growth, and enjoy significantly lower employee and client turnover.

Right now, you might be thinking, Is there a more purpose-driven, meaningful endeavor than the practice of veterinary medicine? And, you have a good point. The work we do is steeped in purpose and meaning. The problem is we don’t act that way intentionally. We fail to leverage our greatest strength.

When was the last time you talked to a colleague or co-worker about what gives them meaning in their work? When was the last time you actively considered the contribution you made today in other people’s lives? When was the last time you collectively considered the purpose of your hospital/organization and developed a clear vision of what it looks like when the purpose is coming to life? And, if you’ve done any of these things, consider this: How many times since have you talked about, thought about, planned around external goals, like financial metrics?

I’ve never met a veterinary professional who didn’t believe in the value of preventive medicine. And yet, as an industry, we tend to view our well-being crisis in a reactionary way. I’m grateful for the tools we have for treating mental distress and illness and the people out there meaningfully yielding those tools. That said, I believe these younger sciences, such as positive psychology and neuroscience, are uncovering tools that give us a real shot at well-being “preventive medicine.” We need only do the hard work of embracing them.

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Josh Vaisman
Josh Vaisman is the co-founder and "positive change ninja" of Flourish Veterinary Consulting. He found his way into the most rewarding field in the world when he walked up to the 6'6'' Dr. Donald Davidson Dodge at a Petsmart Veterinary Services in Boulder, Colorado, and asked if he could volunteer. Dr. Dodge responded, "Nope, but we'll hire you!" That was in 1995. Since then, Josh has filled every role in a veterinary hospital, excluding DVM, from receptionist to tech to supervisor to manager to owner in two different small animal practices. A lifetime optimist and "happy guy," Josh was shocked to find himself completely burnt out in early 2017. Since then, he's dedicated his professional trajectory to helping veterinary professionals and teams thrive. To that end, he co-founded Flourish Veterinary Consulting with Marianne Mallonee, CVPM, to bring his vision to life. Josh lives in Colorado with his amazing wife, three insane parrots, two Great Danes that occasionally share the couch, a 7-pound cat also known as "The Golden Child," some fish tanks, and a few bee hives. In his "free time," he's pursuing a master's degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology.
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