Do You Need A Sabbatical?

Taking time off to relax and vacation is essential when working in a veterinary practice.

Terry Wild Stock Inc

We live in a world that continues to become more demanding and stressful. The expectation is to be more efficient and more organized through the use of electronic support, thereby reducing stress and providing more free time. However, are we really able to reduce our level of stress and free up time through technology alone? The answer is an obvious "No!"

Most workers in the United States are now working more hours than they did l0 years ago. The projected reduction in the work week has not occurred even though great advances have been made with the Internet, as well as satellite and cellular communications. Communication media now allow us to be in constant contact with our business, family, colleagues and friends. This technology makes communications much easier and efficient, but does not provide more free time. In fact, most people are experiencing less free time because we cannot really get away from work. We are now becoming a nation that takes working weekends and working vacations rather than real "get-away" vacations.

As the pressure of competition continues to push us faster and faster down the road to "being successful," we are becoming more stressed and subject to burnout. The additional stress, over time, will lead to burnout in most people if they are unable or unwilling to take short breaks to rest and refocus their goals and lives.

The average American usually takes two weeks of vacation per year. The average veterinarian usually takes a few days at a time, several times each year, but really does not "get away" from the practice. Instead, we stay in touch with the practice via voice mail and e-mail. The improved communication methods are great, but we cannot truly take a break from our daily routine.

In Europe, the average worker is mandated to take six weeks of vacation per year. Europeans supposedly think most Americans must be crazy or are workaholics because we take only a one- or two-week break from our working routine.

Veterinarian Considerations

Veterinarians as a group are not inclined to relax or vacation very well because of our personality types. Most veterinarians are impatient, demanding, driven, Type A perfectionists. As such, we have difficulty with free time. When we do take a vacation, after about three days, we are looking for and planning projects to keep us busy to give us a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

Because we do not relax very well, we have a tendency to become over-committed in both our professional and private lives. The committee work for organized veterinary medicine, the church, public schools and service clubs is noteworthy, but can add to the level of stress when combined with the routine workload and family life.

When the level of stress continues over a number of years, without periodic rest periods, the end result can be burnout (losing interest in your life's work or life itself), rust out (being bored and depressed) or serious health problems. We all know colleagues who have left practice or changed careers in order to reduce stress and attempt to obtain some control over their lives.

The best control of burnout and rust out is taking regular breaks from work and its routine. The fact is, most of us do not believe our businesses will survive without us. However, if we plan ahead and make use of delegation techniques, regular breaks can become a routine part of our work schedule.

I know of a small animal practice that has a 20-year arrangement between the two owners where they each take a three-month Sabbatical each year. During these three months off, they have done a variety of things, both personal and professional. The various activities have included taking graduate courses, receiving additional clinical training, performing research, producing publications, working on their ranch, vacationing, working at home, etc. This period of time has provided each owner with the needed time to accomplish what was important to them at that time. These mini-Sabbaticals have maintained their life energy at a very high level and improved the quality of both of their personal and professional lives.

Making Time for Time Off

Most people do not make the time necessary to really get away from their work routine. In the 35 years I have been a veterinarian, I have taken only a few real vacations, and they were never longer than l0 days. Most of my "vacation time" has been used to present continuing education lectures and attend veterinary meetings. I have truly enjoyed attending and speaking at meetings all over the world, but I could tell I needed a break from the routine of 22 years of hospital administration.

In July, 200l, I was granted a six-month Sabbatical from Louisiana State University to complete some publications, update lecture material and review the teaching hospital administration at five veterinary schools (three in the U.S. and two in Europe). The experience has been more rewarding than I could have ever hoped. In addition to completing a textbook, writing four articles, converting 50 lectures from slides to Power Point and visiting five veterinary schools, I had a number of personal changes in my life.

One of the first things I noticed that changed was my sleep pattern. For the first time in 20 years, I was sleeping through the night rather than waking up every few hours thinking about things that needed to be done the next day. I felt more rested and seemed to have more creative ideas and thoughts. I thought of things from my childhood that I had not thought about in many years. I was able to do some reading and felt as if I were caught up with everything for the first time since I was in high school.

During the first three months, I was very focused on meeting deadlines and completing a specific list of tasks and travel. The second three-month period I was more relaxed and started to enjoy each day with less scheduling and deadlines. My whole attitude was starting to change, and I was actually looking forward to specific tasks and meetings that needed to be accomplished. I was asking myself about what was really important in life and what I wanted to do from this point forward.

The real value of my Sabbatical was much more than accomplishing specific professional goals. The real value turned out to be the personal things that I found to be so important, once I had some time to think. The value of family and friends became clearer to me. I was able to spend some real time babysitting my 3-year-old grandson on a daily basis (my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live in Baton Rouge). This is an experience I missed with my own son because I was in graduate school and then in practice. What can be more important than teaching my own grandson? Especially when I get to do the teaching with the help of my wife of 4l years?

The next major personal issue I was able to quickly sort out was the fact that I will never retire if my health continues to be good. I need to have some structure in my life and I really do love what I do. Like most veterinarians I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, I have a deep desire to service people and their animals. In my case, I work mostly with veterinarians, veterinary technicians and veterinary students, around whom my life has revolved. During my Sabbatical, I discovered I would have a void in my life without my teaching and writing activities. I would like to focus my attention in the future more toward teaching and writing and spend less time in administration. These findings would not have been possible without time away from my usual routine.

How can you make use of my experience? The first area to be aware of is the development of burnout. Burnout is a special kind of stress that occurs most often in the "helping" professions. It develops from becoming too involved in our work without regular breaks. The signs of burnout are not wanting to keep doing what you are doing; feeling frustrated and unappreciated; feeling disinterested in clients, staff and family; losing energy; feeling mentally overburdened; and not looking forward to going to work.

My six-month Sabbatical has been one of the most rewarding professional and personal experience of my career. I am sorry I waited 35 years to take my first one.

Avoiding Burnout

What can you do to control or prevent work stress and burnout? You must get control of your life and your work. Some of the strategies to consider include the following:

1. Determine the priorities in your life and develop a plan to better balance your professional and personal activities.

2. Improve your professional efficiency by learning to delegate more duties and use time-management techniques to reduce wasted time.

3. Appreciate your staff and colleagues more–we are very fortunate to be in the veterinary medical profession.

4. Develop a special interest area in your practice (surgery, medicine, dentistry, exotics, etc.) and increase your knowledge in that area.

5. Set aside a period of time each day for yourself (exercising, reading, working on a hobby, time with spouse and/or children).

6. Plan regular breaks or getaways using long weekends (l0 to l5 days per year).

7. Plan to take a Sabbatical (four weeks to six months) several times in your career. Remember, Europeans take six weeks of vacation every year. 

Dr. McCurnin is a professor at and the hospital director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and Clinics, School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University.


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