“You’re always so happy, how do you do it?” the client asked me as I examined her dog.
“Good acting,” I half-quipped. This day in particular had me believing my happy face was nothing more than a ruse.
It had been a tough week and an even tougher day. Our four (looking for a fifth) doctor practice was down a doc again as we had been for six of the previous eight weeks, a cat I had seen for a UTI had died unexpectedly at home, my parents’ dog was in end-stage kidney failure, and I had spent 15 minutes on the phone with an irate client who believed I was personally responsible for her dog tearing her cruciate while she was boarding.
I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. How could I go into an exam room with a smile on and pretend everything was alright?
In that exam room, for those few minutes, I was happy. I was with a client who loved her pets and was always kind and appreciative of my efforts to care for them. She had recently lost one of her dogs, but here she was with a newly adopted senior dachshund she had opened her heart to. I was happy for her. So I left everything else at the door.
Compartmentalization is how we focus on explaining atopy to one client while worrying about the CHF dog in oxygen in the back. It’s how we kindly and genuinely greet one client right after getting reamed out about charges by another.
And it’s how we go home at the end of a 12-hour shift filled with emergencies and still manage to enjoy a good snuggle with our own pets. Compartmentalization is how we stay sane. So how do we do it in a healthy way?
Leave Work at Work
We all do it. We bring a chart home to write up. We research a case on VIN from our house. We stay up all night worrying about our splenectomy from that morning. We don’t give ourselves a break and that is a recipe for burnout.
Start the process of disconnecting from work before you leave the office. Make sure your calls are made, your charts are written up and your in-patients checked on. Then tell yourself you’re leaving. Make it a mantra. “Goodbye vet med.” “Lauren has left the building.” “Peace out, pets.” Saying the same thing every time tells your brain to start shutting down.
The mental shutdown may take a while. Allow yourself to process the day on the commute, but once you’re out of the car, work is over. When you start thinking about work again, remind yourself that it can wait until tomorrow. Your patients are safe with their families or the next doctor on shift. Your clients have the number for the local emergency clinic. It’s okay to stop thinking about work for a while. You are not a horrible person if you take time for yourself.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Multi-tasking has become an integral part of life, but it’s not always good for you or your patients. It may feel ingenuine to go from a euthanasia to a new kitten exam and act all ooey-gooey, gushing over the cuteness. It’s not. That kitten and her family deserve your enthusiasm as much as the family euthanizing their dog deserves your empathy.
When it’s time to move from one room to another, step into a neutral place. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and tap into the energy that you’re going to need for the next appointment. Once you’ve made the change, move on to the next room and focus all your energy on the new task at hand.
Don’t Ignore the Bad Stuff
It’s not healthy or helpful to spend all your time obsessing over a case that went bad, a client that blamed you for something that wasn’t your fault or a bad review. Learn to shut it off—but not forever. The really bad stuff needs to be processed. You need people you can talk to about it and a time and place to analyze it where it won’t interfere with the rest of your life.
Repressing the difficult stuff only internalizes the pain. Trying to push through and ignore it is one of the risk factors for developing compassion fatigue. So if you have a compartment that feels especially heavy make sure you make time to open it up and lighten the load.
Learn to Say “No”
We hate hearing it almost as much as we hate saying it. We feel like we have to do it all. But we can’t.
We only have room for so many compartments at once. That means we need to decide what the most important things are, carve out a place for each, and say “no” to the rest.
If one compartment is for going to the gym after work, then when someone calls at the last minute asking you to see their dog with an ear infection, the answer is “no” because you need to get out on time. When you’ve made a compartment for Saturday with the family and a colleague asks you to cover their shift, the answer is “no” because you already have plans. And for all that is good in this world—PLEASE don’t give your cell phone number to clients to call you at all hours. A decent night’s sleep is essential for processing all the events of a day and waking up ready to do it all again.
Compartmentalization generally has a negative connotation, but the truth is, sometimes it’s necessary. It’s a tool we need to survive, to create a balance in our lives, and to give ourselves permission to enjoy the good things in life.