5 Tips for Managing Veterinary Stress (with Dr. Shawna Garner)

You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a difficult time in the veterinary world. You probably don’t need to see any statistics about the difficulties in hiring and maintaining staff, and I imagine you’ve heard plenty about burnout

So this week we’re going to try something a little different. I want to take a look at how one solo DVM maintains work-life balance and takes care of herself, even when things get hectic. 

Dr. Shawna Garner owns and operates a small clinic in her hometown in central Illinois. She serves both the town and the surrounding area, and maintains a small staff of three employees. It’s a lot to juggle, and she walked me through the ways that she manages stress and maintains a healthy work-life balance. 

Dr. Shawna is the host of our new show, the VetHealth podcast. Alongside her tips for handling mental and emotional health, our first episode explores the toolset she uses to manage her clinic, her advice for young DVMs just entering the profession, and the broader conversations we need to be having in the VetMed world. You can find the whole episode here.

1. Take a beat

As a starting point, Shawna recommends setting aside time for mindfulness in whatever form works for you. For her, that’s meditation, but the same process can take a lot of different forms. Relaxing hobbies like knitting, painting, and yoga can all be helpful ways to destress outside of the clinic.

During the day, simple breathing exercises can help reduce stress, increase blood flow, and keep you focused. The 4-7-8 technique involves inhaling for four seconds, holding for seven, and exhaling for eight. It’s a small practice that you can maintain throughout the day. 

Getting out of the clinic, either to take a walk or just sit in your car for a couple minutes, can also give you the space you need. Generally, Shawna recommends taking a beat and refocusing when your stress level starts going up, though she recognizes that can be difficult for associates at a busy clinic. 

2. Intentionally aside set time to detach

Shawna doesn’t do social media on Sundays- she calls this “anti-social” Sunday. The focus here is on unplugging and connecting with herself and her family. During that time, her phone is only for making calls. 

It’s not easy to step away from social media, though, even for a single day. The Jed Foundation recommends turning off push notifications, setting your phone screen to grayscale, and deleting social media apps to help in cutting back screen time. 

3. Let it go

Shawna recommends picking your battles and recognizing the parts of a pet’s health journey where you aren’t in control. Rather than trying to change a pet owner’s mind about treatment or diagnostics if they can’t afford it, Shawna steps back, respecting and supporting their decision. 

The pet owner is the decision maker, and Shawna knows that taking too much ownership over individual pets is emotionally draining. Here’s how she describes the situation: “A lot of times, veterinarians will take on a patient personally… they want to do absolutely everything and if the pet owner can’t, they feel the guilt.” Long-term, holding onto that guilt can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Similarly, when she leaves the clinic, Shawna makes a point of separating herself mentally. That might mean reading, playing video games with her son, or walking outside for thirty minutes to an hour. It’s a different kind of letting go, but the focus is still on creating a separation between your working life and your emotional life.

4. Treat your time as valuable

How many times has a friend or family member called you to ask for help with a pet? How many times have you been tagged in a Facebook post looking for pet advice? Have you received Messenger requests from strangers asking for support?

Any time you’ve helped someone in one of these situations, Shawna argues that you’ve been providing telemedicine. The question, then, is whether you charged for that support. It can feel uncomfortable, but offering this kind of help for free can cut into your already limited free time.

Here’s how Shawna thinks about it: “You still have to assess that patient, you still have to assess the situation, formulate a plan. That’s worth something. We are worth something.”

Another way to think about it: when you respond to these requests, you’re working. Valuing your time and pushing responses to standard in-clinic hours can help you to maintain clearer boundaries.

5. Use the right tools

Thus far, we’ve mostly been looking at individual steps for addressing stress and burnout. The issues that most veterinarians are facing can’t really be solved on an individual level, though. For many clinics, the problems are structural, and one key way to fill in the gaps is with technology.

Shawna uses Talkatoo for her medical dictation service. It’s a huge time-saver that allows her to move more quickly through the demands of her clinic. For her online pharmacy needs, she uses Vetsource, which keeps revenue in-clinic. Finally, she partners with GuardianVets to cut back phone overload and provide after hours care without needing to be on-call herself. 

If you’re struggling with burnout, think about the toolset you’re using currently and whether there are processes that you could streamline or offload. 

Hungry for more? Subscribe to the VetHealth Podcast wherever you like to listen! We’ve got a packed season on the way and we’re excited to share this journey with you.

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