Upon graduating veterinary school in 2009, I don’t think I had ever heard the phrase “self-care”, nevertheless been taught anything about it. Now that term is popping up everywhere! You see it all over social media, movies, TV shows and even job ads promoting that the place of employment “encourages self-care”. While the term “self-care” along with “culture” seem to be the latest trending trigger phrases in an attempt for employers and employees alike to promote wellness, it seems as if a lot of us have no grasp on what these terms mean. So what exactly is self-care, what’s all the hype? Why should those of us in veterinary medicine care?
I’ll leave the discussion of culture to another day, as I have very strong feelings about the use of this term in our current industry. Spoiler alert, it will be a “practice what you preach” blog. But I digress. Today, in honor of September being National Self-Care Awareness Month, I’ll focus on self-care only.
When you think of self-care, what comes to mind? If you’re like many of us, I think of funny memes depicting a person indulging in copious amounts of liquor, fast food, or aspects of a lavish lifestyle while justifying it saying “this is self-care”. These memes and social media’s portrayal of self-care has mistaken self-care for self-indulgence, self-sabotage and frequently selfishness. They are not one in the same!
"WHO defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”.
Inherent in the concept is the recognition that whatever factors and processes may determine behaviour, and whether or not self-care is effective and interfaces appropriately with professional care, it is the individual person who acts (or does not act) to preserve health or respond to symptoms.
Self-care is broad concept which also encompasses hygiene (general and personal); nutrition (type and quality of food eaten); lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure, etc.); environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.); socioeconomic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.); and self-medication. Core principles: Fundamental principles for self-care include aspects of the individual (e.g. self-reliance, empowerment, autonomy, personal responsibility, self-efficacy) as well as the greater community (e.g. community participation, community involvement, community empowerment)."
Still confused? I was too after I read that definition. Even going back and reading again while proof reading this blog, I still couldn’t grasp it based on that. So I continued my search for a more concrete definition that I could wrap my head around. I stumbled across the International Self-care Foundation website. Their goal is to define self-care from an individual’s point of view, and base it around 7 pillars or domains. These pillars are as follows:
- Health literacy
- Mental wellbeing
- Physical activity
- Healthy eating
- Risk avoidance or mitigation
- Good hygiene
- Rational & responsible use of products, services, diagnostics & medicines
Ok…so getting closer to understanding. But honestly, most of us still have difficulty understanding WHAT self-care is, nevertheless grasping 7 different aspects. Though I do love that you should base your practices around one or all of those pillars. Well, then I found this:
"Self-care is the practice of individuals looking after their own health using the knowledge and information available to them. It is a decision-making process that empowers individuals to look after their own health efficiently and conveniently, in collaboration with health and social care professionals as needed."
This involves making healthy choices, avoiding unhealthy choices and/or habits, responsible use of medicine, self-recognition, self-monitoring and self-management of symptoms.
Ah, ok. Got it. So to go back to what I originally described – No, it’s not overindulgence but rather being self-aware and making choices to provide whole body health. It can be used to both prevent “lifestyle disease” (e.g. obesity, type II diabetes, etc.) and also manage current conditions (stress, etc.).
Well now that we all seem to be on the same page about WHAT self-care is, this brings up my next points. What’s all the hype? Why is this such a hot ticket item in recent years and more importantly, why should those of us in veterinary medicine care?
First and foremost, times are a changing folks. Being a workaholic and/or overworking oneself to the point of exhaustion is no longer considered a virtue. Gone are the days of sleeping in an apartment above a veterinary clinic so that you can be available 24/7 for your clients. Gone are the days of being open 7 days a week (and working every day), never taking vacations and giving out your personal number for clients to call you at all hours of the day. Gone are the days of never taking a day off. Or if you aren’t at the office, you’re at home making callbacks, doing records, etc. If you just read that and thought – well I still do that stuff all the time – or – my boss still does that and/or makes me do that all the time – my advice to you is STOP. Now. Immediately.
Too many an older generation veterinarian spent their entire lives working. Only to get to retirement age and continue to work, because they knew nothing else. These individuals had nothing else in their life but their job and (some) family. They had/have no outside hobbies. No interests outside of veterinary medicine. Everything in life revolved around work – when they would eat, what they could eat and when, when they would exercise, what friends/family they could see and when, when they could leave town and for how long, etc.
Living this way is not only undesirable from a physical standpoint but also from a mental and spiritual standpoint. Today’s generations of veterinarians, or I’d like to think those in my generation and younger, are starting to stand up to the behavior above and say NO MORE. We are demanding longer lunch hours, shorter work days / work weeks, and taking our vacation days agreed to in our contracts. We want employers to practice what they preach and we want to be respected, understood and cared for in the same way we care for the animals. Hence why self-care has recently become such a big deal in our industry and the workforce in general. Collectively we are starting to say no and tolerate much less than we used to.
However, finding a job, hospital and/or company that agrees with these statements can be difficult. Trust me, I know firsthand. Which is why I formed RENEW – to help transition into a new, healthier way of thinking, being, working and living in veterinary medicine. A lot of us WANT those things above, but are having difficulty finding it and/or changing oneself.
Even if you are getting into the habit of creating and/or finding a healthier work environment, you may still not be practicing self-care at home. Are you being physically active a few days a week, or just coming home and vegging out in front of the TV or your phone? Are you being conscious about what you eat and when? Or just stopping at the closest fast food place on your way home. Are you findings hobbies outside of medicine that you enjoy? Or just spending your free time bitching about work with co-workers over drinks. Are you finding healthy ways to relieve stress and ground yourself? Or just continue to let your mind race 24/7 with anxiety and tasks.
Now don’t get me wrong, any of those things above are not inherently bad, but over time if they are habit, your body is not getting what it deserves.
Self-care can be as simple or lavish as you make it. It can be not answering work emails once you walk out the door, a pedicure once a month, regular acupuncture, or taking a nature walk. It can be setting healthy boundaries both in and out of work, removing toxic people from your life, or treating yourself to an expensive steak dinner. Self-care does not always have to be about "stuff", but rather acts of self-love and self-appreciation both in and out of work.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably already answered the last part of our question on why self-care is important in veterinary medicine today. You’ve got it. Burn out, compassion fatigue, leaving the industry, suicide. All rampant in this day and age of veterinary medicine. We need to get to a point where we both practice self-care and preach it to others – to our co-workers, our friends, our colleagues and even those not in the industry. We need to get to a point where taking your vacation isn’t considered lazy or selfish, it’s essential. Where leaving at the end of the day is encouraged, even if you haven’t called back every person on your list. Where taking a lunch and only working your contracted 40hrs a week isn’t demonized but expected.
I struggled with self-care for years. I always felt like I had to be “doing” something that was either related to school, work or my career. In the past, sure I exercised daily, but only so I could be healthier to work, not because it made my mind/body/soul feel good. Now I do regular self-care practices that work for me. I set aside certain times for work and when I’m not at clinics, I don’t engage with client conversations about their pets. I set much better boundaries than I ever have, am conscious of what I eat (most of the time), work out regularly and try to get adequate sleep. I manage chronic disc disease with a number of modalities, knowing now that if I want to avoid surgery for as long as possible it starts with self-care.
I want to help as many of you out there, as many of you reading this, with good self-care practices. I want to help you have an easier journey than I did! I want you to learn from what worked and didn’t work for me, and I want to teach others from where I tripped up so you don’t have to do to the same. Whether that is on an individual basis, a hospital basis or both. I want to help hospitals encourage their staff to take care of themselves by setting hospital standards, protocols and practices that allow their staff this freedom. I want to get away from practice owners, managers, shift leads and medical directors demonizing those who leave on time, have lives outside of work and actually have healthy work-life balances. I’m done with practices claiming a healthy environment, then doing the opposite.
I formed RENEW so that we could all make changes for the better in our industry. And I’m ready to work for you, for us, for the industry, to make it happen. Are you ready to start your self-care today?!