Work-Life Balance & Boundaries

Balancing the professional demands of being a veterinarian with your life outside of work can be daunting. Achieving work-life balance is one of the most important ways to achieve both career and personal satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires prioritizing both work (including professional development) and lifestyle needs (including family, friends, leisure time and personal growth).

Assessing your wellness is key to prioritizing goals and working toward better balance. If you haven’t already done so, start by taking the Professional Quality of Life Assessment. This tool can help you assess yourself in three critical areas: compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue. There are other assessment tools that can help as well, such as those linked from the “Are You Out of Balance?” box.

You might also want to consider whether the reactions you’re having to common, everyday stresses are proportional to the situation. Overly emotional reactions to everyday situations can indicate that it’s time to make changes in your life.

If you’re wondering whether counseling would be a good idea, chances are that it would.  Please get help immediately if you feel that you’re in crisis.  No one can do everything alone.

Strategies to Improve Work-Life Balance

Having a solid self-care plan – and following it – can take you a long way toward balancing your professional and personal lives. The balance will be different for each individual, as will the path you chart to get there. But pay particular attention to nurturing your social and family relationships – and remember that it’s important to have fun. A healthier, happier you is good for both you and your patients.

Here are some possible strategies to help you balance the competing demands of work and social/family life. Some are things you can do on your own. Others may require you to enlist help from friends or relatives, and some require the cooperation of co-workers and/or your boss. Some of the conversations may seem daunting, but there are ways to make difficult conversations easier, and the rewards can be well worth the effort. If you need to convince your boss to implement more family-friendly policies, this short podcast featuring Dr. Ernie Ward has good information about the practical business benefits of workplace wellness programs and flexible scheduling policies.

Reduce Your Time at Work

  • Make a one-year calendar of your most important birthday and other celebrations – upcoming weddings, class reunions, family get-togethers – and find a way to get the time off. Find another veterinarian to work or be on call for you if necessary. (Don’t let your calendar expire. At the end of the year, repeat the process for the following year.)
  • Seek a flexible work schedule. If your practice doesn’t already have one, talk with the practice owner to see if (s)he would be receptive to the idea. Even if there’s not a lot of flexibility, it might still be possible to trade occasional hours with another veterinarian to allow both of you to attend important family events.
  • Own your own practice? Find someone who can cover for you in order to guarantee you some time off. If you need someone to relieve you occasionally from work, chances are there’s another veterinarian in your area who has the same need!
  • Learn to say no. You can’t possibly do everything and please everyone. If your gut tells you that you really don’t have time or bandwidth for something – whether at work, at home, or in the community – don’t take it on. It’s not easy, but it's important to say no.
  • Look into a job or career change if that’s what’s needed. Depending on your situation or interests, this could mean looking for a practice that can accommodate a part-time or flexible work schedule, or it could mean looking into less traditional veterinary or even non-veterinary careers. Explore options in regulatory or industry work, or academia. And rest assured that veterinary skills also translate well to other professions.
  • If you’re looking for a job, find out in advance what each prospective employer’s policies are regarding paid time off; family leave (including maternity and paternity leave); time off for funerals (bereavement); flexible scheduling; and job sharing. Ask also if there is a wellness program in place for employees.

Make Positive Changes in Your Workplace and Work Habits

  • Don’t take work home. This includes both projects and ongoing tasks such as email. Leave work at work as much as possible; otherwise your "personal" time isn’t really yours.
  • Track how you spend your time at work for a full week. See if you can identify any tasks that aren’t needed, could be delegated to someone else, or could be set aside and done together (for example, on a once-daily or once-weekly schedule) to save time.
  • Leave on time at least once a week. If you already manage to do that, then up the ante so that you’re leaving on time once more per week than usual.
  • Eat lunch away from work at least once a week.
  • Offer to set up a workplace wellness program or policy if your employer doesn’t already have one. You might find that your boss or practice owner is keenly interested in the subject and would welcome help in setting one up.

  • Look at our practical tips for ideas on how to make your time at work happier and less stressful, and Improving Work-Life Balance for Your Veterinary Staff for additional ideas to might share with your employer.

Make the Most of Time Outside Work

  • Put your technology devices aside when you’re with friends and family. It can be tempting to check your email or news headlines, or see what’s happening on social media; but when you’re with people you care about, focus entirely on your time together.
  • Track how you spend your time outside the office for one full week. See what patterns emerge that offer ideas to make more time available for yourself, your family or your friends. Do you find yourself stopping at the grocery store every day? Try taking time to plan a weekly menu and shopping just once for the whole week. (You might even save money that way.) Tired of spending your entire day off doing laundry? You might consider doing a load a day instead, to see if that helps ease some strain.
  • Organize your errands so you can do them together to save time. Keep a running list of errands to help you.
  • Lower your expectations for cleaning and other chores. Let yourself set some of these things aside in favor of spending more time with family, friends and play.
  • Get to know friends and neighbors with whom you might be able to share child-care or elder-care responsibilities. You might even form a child-sitting co-operative with parents of your children’s friends, and take turns trading child care for days/nights out.

How AVMA Can Help

AVMA Member Discussions: Work-Life Balance & Wellness

Veterinary Career Transitions

Podcast: "Daily Choices" Required to Find Perfect Blend of Work-Life Balance

Stress Management Checklist

Additional Reading and Resources

How to Set Boundaries and Improve Life Balance

Canadian Mental Health Association Mental Health Meter

Canadian Mental Health Association Work-Life Balance Quiz

Tips for Women on Work-Life Balance

Career Flexibility and Family­-Friendly Policies: An NIH­-funded study to enhance women's careers in biomedical sciences (Villablanca AC, Beckett L, Nettiksimmons J, et al., J Womens Health 2011; 20: 1485–1496.)

Manage Work-Life Balance (and Volunteer Commitments)

Balancing Motherhood and Veterinary Practice

Plans for Balancing Work and Family Life: Do Women Pursuing Non-traditional and Traditional Occupations Differ?

Characteristics and Outcomes for Women Physicians Who Work Reduced Hours