As veterinarians, we spend our working days caring for others. But who cares for the caregiver? Your mental – and physical – wellbeing depends largely on your ability to care for yourself in addition to your patients. You don't have to do it alone, but you have to do it. You're the one who has to prioritize your own care as well as that of your patients and clients.
Why? It's simple: If you're not taking care of yourself, you'll be less able to care for others. Your own wellbeing affects your ability to care for your patients and your loved ones.
A moral imperative
Wellbeing is a choice that requires prioritization and accountability. Good health doesn't just happen; it happens through the decisions you make every day about how, where, and with whom you spend your time. A growing body of scholars and mental health professionals now argue that veterinarians and other caregiving professionals have a moral imperative not just to help patients but also to help themselves.
"We're having to redefine what is the ethical responsibility, that it includes not just working really hard but also keeping oneself well so that you can continue in the work and help with the other people in the profession or in your clinics," said Dr. Elizabeth Strand, PhD, associate clinical professor and founding director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee CVM, in a 2015 JAVMA news article.
Being aware of the dimensions that make up your wellbeing, and recognizing that there are things you can do to improve them, are the first steps in taking ownership of your health. It is important to regularly check in with the different aspects of your wellbeing, reflect on what habits continue to serve your greatest good, and make adjustments as needed along the way.
The Professional Quality of Life Assessment tool is a great resource for assessment. It can help you measure how you are being affected in key areas related to mental wellbeing, which can then help you identify areas where you want to focus your self-care planning. If you haven't already taken the assessment, consider starting there.
Other assessment tools available online include:
Self-reflection also can aid in remembering on a day-to-day basis where we are and what we need to start and/or continue doing. For a list of questions you can ask yourself every day to stimulate self-reflection, check out The Power of Self-Reflection.
Once you're ready to focus on more tactical planning for your mental wellbeing, experts advise that you develop and maintain a self-care plan based on your personal assessment(s), focusing on specific ways to improve key areas of both your personal and professional life.
Wellbeing isn't a single measure of health. It is composed of nine unique dimensions that touch upon every aspect of our life: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional, physical, financial, creative and environmental. These dimensions work together, and collaboratively contribute to our overall wellbeing. By the same token, when one area is lacking the others will also be impacted.
Here are the nine dimensions of wellbeing:
- Occupational - Being engaged in work that gives you personal satisfaction, and aligns with your values, goals, and lifestyle
- Intellectual – Learning new things; Participating in activities that foster critical thinking and expand your worldviews
- Spiritual - Having a sense of inner harmony and balance
- Social - Surrounding yourself with a network of support built on mutual trust, respect, and compassion
- Emotional - Being able to identify and manage your full range of emotions, and seeking help when necessary
- Physical – Taking care of your body e.g., getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, etc.
- Financial - Being aware of your personal finances and adhering to a budget that enables you to meet your financial goals
- Creative - Participating in diverse cultural and artistic experiences
- Environmental - Taking an active role in preserving, protecting and improving the environment
In each area, assess where you are currently, and decide if you are satisfied with how you are doing. You can then identify areas to target for improvement. If, for example, you have strong familial relationships with people who provide you good emotional support, but concern about your financial situation is a key contributor to dissatisfaction, you can focus on ways to improve your financial outlook – whether through writing a will, creating a budget to help set aside savings or pay off student debt more quickly, or seeking additional income through a pay raise at work or outside employment.
Don't forget to continue nurturing the areas where you're already doing well. Your self-care plan should include both growth and maintenance goals addressing all nine dimensions.
Throughout these pages, we've tried to provide a wide range of resources, ideas and tools to help you craft and execute your self-care plan. Not all of these strategies will resonate with everyone, and some might work for you at certain times in your life but not others. It is also important to note that even when you've dedicated yourself to making health-improving decisions, there will always be forces in the universe you simply cannot predict. Serious illness, unforeseen financial hardships and other challenges may arise unavoidably, or may even be prebuilt into your genetic makeup, family situation or other circumstances out of your immediate control. The key is to take ownership of the choices you can control, and to be consistent and intentional in the decisions that impact your wellbeing.
How AVMA can help
100 healthy tips to support a culture of wellbeing (PDF)
Strategies to improve work-life balance
Stress management for veterinarians
Steps to improve physical fitness and wellbeing
Assess your wellbeing: Professional Quality of Life assessment tool
How understanding the mind and cultivating mindsight supports your wellbeing (Video)
Webinar – Staying afloat: Professional stress and wellbeing
Caring for yourself pocket card (PDF)
Additional reading & resources
Who in Your Practice Has Experienced Compassion Fatigue, Burnout or Depression?
Introduction to Wellness
7 Ways to Practice Emotional First Aid
Everyday Habits that Can Boost Mental and Physical Well-being
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Lab: Guided meditations