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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Calling out our "Calling"

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

In the last weekend of June, a small handful of Colorado veterinarians and a couple of Occupational Psychology researchers from Colorado State University ascended into Golden Gate Canyon for rest, recreation, and deep discussion. Sponsored by Chapter 6 of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and Peer Assistance Services in Colorado, this was the second annual Wellness Retreat hosted by CVMA. Golden Gate Canyon State Park is beautiful and remote – close enough to be within an hour’s drive of Denver, yet isolated enough to offer no cell reception. It is the perfect setting in which to truly disconnect from the rigors of day to day life, without having to travel far.

We stayed, again, in the Works Ranch group campsite. There were small children and snacks; campfires and comradery. There was a yoga class on Saturday morning, and as though to bless the scene, a young moose munched leaves just after sunrise near the cabin porch in the center of the campsite. Hiking in the afternoon was followed by feasting and s’mores. Throughout the day, we engaged in deep discussion.

For me, this second retreat was a return pilgrimage to a sacred site. The Works Ranch group campsite is the birthplace of an idea that has shaped my life for the last year. At gatherings of veterinarians, it is often said that, “Veterinary medicine is a calling, not a career.” But this notion of veterinary medicine being a calling can cut both ways. It can affirm our commitment to our work and give meaning to our struggles – but it can also cause shame, perfectionism, and workaholism; and it can make us vulnerable to exploitation by employers. As a society, we revere those that are called to their careers, and we undervalue the parts of our lives that our work is meant to support. A calling sounds great in theory, but in practice, for some individuals, it can cause more harm to feel we must be called.

At the inaugural Wellness Retreat in the summer of 2018, we explored the idea that we can care about what we do – and excel at it, and make a difference, and find meaning in our work! – without letting it consume us. We asked: what if the way to a healthier population of veterinarians is to destigmatize the idea that our work can be “just a job”?

One year later, Adelyn Shimizu and Dylan Marsh, two researchers at Colorado State University in the field of clinical Occupational Psychology, are studying this question. Their research focuses on exploring the negative outcomes of viewing work as a calling, specifically in veterinarians. Their aim is not only to explore the topic, but to create actionable, proven results with direct applications to helping veterinarians better weather and enjoy the rigors of their careers. So far, they have conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with veterinarians, and teased out common themes that appeared repeatedly. They have moved on to holding group discussions to further define the questions they plan to pose in a nationwide survey that will go out to veterinarians this fall. They were gracious enough to join the retreat and help lead our discussion throughout the day on Saturday, June 29th – with their open minds ready for discussion and their preliminary findings in hand.

I was again moved and inspired by the retreat participants who brought their best selves to the discussion. It takes courage and vulnerability to discuss depression, compassion fatigue, anxiety, and difficult life changes with a group of strangers. But participants did just that, each sharing his or her professional life story to illustrate whether they currently view veterinary medicine as a calling, a career, or just a job – and what that point of view means for their ability to hold their work in a healthy balance with the rest of their life. We discussed ways in which veterinary medical education can instill harmful values that make achieving balance more difficult, and ways in which our education can leave us unprepared for the day-to-day emotional challenges of clinical practice. (This is what Dr. Betsy Charles, executive director of the Veterinary Leadership Institute, often refers to as the “Hidden Curriculum” of veterinary school.) With multiple participants in leadership positions at their places of work, we discussed common pitfalls of early career veterinarians who are facing the challenges of day to day practice for the first time. But we also shared what has worked for us, in creating personal sustainability within our careers, and what has worked for us in coaching others to do the same.

The researchers shared, for their part, some early insights from their study. Much as one would imagine, there are veterinarians who do benefit from viewing their work as a calling, and those who are harmed by this view. Perhaps those who can choose to NOT view veterinary work as a calling may have an unexplored path, a path to creating healthy boundaries and a harmonious balance between their work responsibilities and their other pursuits in life, through healthy compartmentalization of their jobs. Those who do view veterinary work as a calling have a harder line to walk – some have a harmonious balance, while others let their work eclipse important parts of life, to their detriment. While Shimizu and Marsh’s work is still in the early stages, it seems intuitive that a different set of tools may work best for each subset of the veterinary population seeking a higher level of wellbeing. Further investigation will prove instrumental, I believe, in helping us all move toward a place of greater personal and professional sustainability.

For the time being, my focus continues to be on sharing with others the healing I have found in giving up the idea of having a calling within the profession. I wasted a lot of emotional energy and endured a lot of pain tied to the idea that I was supposed to feel a calling to this work – and since I began discussing this in depth with others, I have encountered many who were alienated or harmed by the view of veterinary medicine being a calling. I believe destigmatizing the idea that our work can be “just a job”, or a career, opens the door to allow veterinarians to create healthy boundaries, achieve better balance and greater wellbeing, and advocate for themselves more effectively than before. Truly, we can care about what we do – and excel at it, and make a difference, and find meaning in our work! – without letting it consume us.

This is the topic of my two-hour workshop at the upcoming annual continuing education Convention with CVMA (on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, from 2:30-4:30 pm), and I am bringing this topic to every national discussion where I can gain some air time. I’ll be hosting a live webinar on this for a national group of Veterinary Medical Association Executives in October, and heading to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA’s) national Wellbeing Summit in November to try to connect with like-minded individuals there.

The ability to view my veterinary work as a career and job, rather than as my calling, has given me profound healing and created so much positive change for me. I owe it to my colleagues to break the “just a job” taboo.

I am so grateful to Dr. Laurie Fonken for seeing the potential value in this idea in 2018, and to Adelyn Shimizu and Dylan Marsh for embarking on their current work to explore this in a scientifically rigorous way. I am absolutely electrified with hope, waiting to see the good that will come of this work – for me, and for my fellow veterinarians profession-wide.


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