Article

A closer look at work-life balance

The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture affects the majority of UK industries but with exceptionally long working hours and an often challenging remit, veterinary medicine is perhaps particularly susceptible. As the proportion of female vets increases, it’s likely that the pressure to find a balance between professional and personal lives will too. Improving this equilibrium within the profession is something that’s been on the wish-list of vets in practice for some time1 but as of yet it seems we still have a way to go in getting it right.

What is it and where am I?

Before contemplating how to best manage your priorities and begin trying to balance them, you have to understand what you are working towards and be able to see where on the scale your current situation lies. Neither of these is as straightforward as it sounds. Does having a good balance mean never feeling stressed because of work? Unlikely – that would be nothing short of a miracle. Does it mean being able to achieve absolutely everything you want to without compromise? Again, this is not probable for most people.

‘Work-life balance’ is a state of well-being which is able to be maintained while effectively managing multiple responsibilities at work, at home and in the community without grief, stress or negative impact. This encompasses both physical and emotional health.1 Conflict occurs when individuals find their roles within the workplace and outside it overwhelming or find that their priorities significantly interfere with one another.

The term ‘work-life balance’ has become rather a buzz phrase in the veterinary industry, often being used as if describing an objective, unchanging set point that vets should be striving for. Being naturally driven individuals, this can lead to vets feeling pressured to excel in all areas of life, resulting in many – particularly working mothers – trying to keep up a superhero-esque persona.

In reality, finding the sweet spot is never going to be easy and is likely to always be a moving target. Achieving a good work-life balance is not an exact science and will differ for everybody but with a thought-out approach it is possible.

Too much work and not enough play?

We all feel stressed because of work from time to time and that’s normal. However, the saying ‘work to live’ rather than vice versa should always apply – something which is easy to forget when you get bogged down in the minutiae of life. This is especially true for vets as working hours in the profession increase.2

 It may not be surprising that rising work hours have been associated with numerous negative physiological and psychological effects.3 Studies have shown that as weekly working hours increase, so does a person’s unhappiness.3 Sadly it’s a bit of a vicious circle too, as the more hours you spend working, the more time outside of your job you’re likely to spend thinking or worrying about it.4

Vets are by no means alone in the battle against the dreaded work-life imbalance, with around a third of UK employees feeling unhappy about the time they devote to work; 40 % neglecting other aspects of their life because of work and nearly two thirds experiencing a negative effect on their personal life as a result.4 The less comforting news is that compared to the general population, vets are at  great risk of work-related stress.5 It seems that women are also more susceptible to work-related stressors than men – potentially as a result of competing life roles and a pressure to juggle.6 However, women are also good at adapting7 and taking stock of which way the scales are tipping when it comes to striking a healthy balance and making even some small changes can make a big difference to us all.

Ten tips for getting it right

Get your priorities straight.  Spend some time reflecting on what matters to you in terms of your home and work life. Make yourself a list of three key priorities for your career, family and personal development and attach a value to each of how well you think you are achieving these at the moment. This will help you identify what you need to do more or less of, or show you which aspects you have got spot on.

Break it down.  Take each of these priorities and break it down into achievable and measurable goals. For example, ‘spend more time with my children’ might actually constitute ‘take up a Sunday afternoon activity with my kids’. You will need to make space for this in your schedule, giving equal priority to all both your work and personal goals.

Track your time. Keep a log of everything you do for a week including work-related and family activities. Your first thought might be that this is an unnecessary waste of time, but it can serve as a real eye-opener and show you where you are spending (and losing) time.

Know your limits. Establish fair and realistic boundaries which govern your working and home life. Vets are often culprits for taking on too much or being too hard on themselves when they find they can’t manage everything. Forget about perfectionism, sometimes ‘good enough’ is just that – good enough.

Prioritise relationships and health. You know your loved ones will always be there for you so it’s tempting to divert efforts away from family and friends. However, if your job is adversely affecting your personal life, ultimately your work will suffer too. The same goes for your health. Taking time to nurture personal relationships and putting health at the top of the priorities list will iStock_000015272632_Largehelp your professional life too.

Make time for you. It may sound clichéd – but that’s because it’s true. Setting aside even a small portion of personal time everyday really can work wonders for your wellbeing. This doesn’t mean doing an errand dressed up as a relaxing activity, but something you genuinely enjoy. It shouldn’t be ‘productive’ in that sense. So whether this involves listening to some new music or just reflecting on the day’s events in a hot bath – do it, and don’t feel guilty about it. You haven’t got the balance right if there’s no rest and relaxation time for yourself.

Leave work at work. This is a skill which can be tough to master and definitely needs some practise. Scheduling an activity or errand which denotes the transition between your work and personal life can be useful in training yourself to be disciplined in making the distinction. For example, booking a gym class straight after work or listening to an audio book on your evening commute may help your mind switch off.

Allow some leeway. It can be tempting to cram every hour of your day full to allow you to fit in everything you want to do. Even if you do manage to tick off your full ‘to-do’ list, being stressed in the process does not constitute a work-life balance success. Plus, we all know that life doesn’t always go to plan so allowing a little spare space in your schedule as a back-up will leave you feeling confident that you can deal with deviations is they arise.  It’s better to drop one thing to create space rather than risk the rest of your schedule, or your sanity.

Don’t suffer in silence. Knowing when to ask for help and not being afraid to do so is key to keeping on top of things. Sometimes we’re too good at maintaining our ‘coping’ facade when actually we’re struggling. Don’t forget, no one expects you to be a martyr but people can’t help unless you let them know there’s a problem. There’s tons of professional support and advice out there and it never hurts to chat through your options with a colleague, friend, family too.

Work smarter, not harder. Time management is an invaluable skill that can help you pack more in to your day without distress.  Focus on strategies such as overcoming procrastination, learning where to draw the boundaries and maximising organisational skills. Stay on top of how new technology can help streamline your schedule and constantly evaluate if there’s something you think you could be doing better.

There’s no perfect recipe for achieving the balance and what works for you at one time point is likely to change, so constantly re-evaluate your situation. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of overhauling your life all at once – implement small changes at a time which, even in isolation, can have a big impact.

Finally, don’t pressure yourself to get it right all of the time. We all struggle to balance all areas of our lives from time to time but by being proactive about planning, getting your priorities straight and learning when to say ‘no’, it is possible to have a successful career as well as a fulfilling personal life.

Is the work-life balance something you struggle with? What are your top tips for getting it right and advice on avoiding common pitfalls?  Do you feel that vets are faced with a unique challenge when it comes to partitioning different portions of our lives? This is something we all struggle with so we’d love to hear your opinions – please post your thoughts in the comments section below.

  1. Chris Higgins and Linda Duxbury. “The 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study: Report One.”
  2. RCVS News 2010. The state of the profession.
  3. Sparks, Kate, et al. “The effects of hours of work on health: a meta‐analytic review.” Journal of occupational and organizational psychology4 (1997): 391-408.
  4. Mental Health Foundation 2014
  5. Bartram, David J., Ghasem Yadegarfar, and David S. Baldwin. “Psychosocial working conditions and work-related stressors among UK veterinary surgeons.” Occupational medicine5 (2009): 334-341.
  6. Sandanger, I., Nygård, J. F., Sørensen, T., & Moum, T. (2004). Is women’s mental health more susceptible than men’s to the influence of surrounding stress?Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 39(3), 177-184.
  7. Woodd, M. (2000). The move towards a different career pattern: are women better prepared than men for a modern career? Career Development International, 5(2), 99-105.