A solid exit plan can soothe veterinary practice burnout

A solid exit plan can soothe veterinary practice burnout

When you feel like you're constantly trudging through your day, a change in careers might be a refreshing solution. But if you decide to get out of veterinary practice ownership and sell – be prepared.
Jul 01, 2012

Most of us know that it isn't payroll, taxes or inventory control that eventually drives a veterinary practice owner to the brink. It's the people: the clients, the staff members and the colleagues. If you're a practice owner, you deal with your fair share of employees who gossip and compare paychecks, no-show clients or clients who get a second opinions via the Internet, associates who quit without notice and throw tantrums in the doctors' lounge—sometimes it just feels like too much.

With all the stress you deal with on a daily basis, it's important to distinguish between the occasional bout of frustration and a larger sense of looming, nagging frustration. The latter is pernicious and calls for more than leaving an hour early on Fridays to attend Zumba classes and blow off steam.

When that feeling of "enough is enough" becomes habitual, it may be time to plan for the possibility that things aren't going to get better this time. An exit plan may be the key to accommodating those feelings, even if it seems like it's too soon to be thinking in those terms. Having a well-considered plan for leaving the ownership role can be soothing. It can also keep you from losing control of the reins when burnout becomes so intense that you're ready to close the doors and walk away at any cost. Moving into a non-ownership role may be a more realistic route to sanity.

Most practice owners don't prepare for the eventuality that genuine burnout might strike suddenly. Consequently, they have not developed a departure scenario. For these practice owners, when a discouraging day turns into a discouraging month (or six), they find themselves in a tough spot. These practitioners may find themselves stuck simultaneously in a bleak financial situation and poor psychological position. The dilemma: They can't stand the idea of continuing to operate their own hospital for much longer, yet they haven't prepared for the practice to go on the market. The consequences of this situation can be dire: clinical depression, substance abuse, or a decision to escape in a hurry and sacrifice financially.

What burnout looks like

Here's an example of what can happen when a practice owner ignores the onset of career dissatisfaction and continues to deny those feelings as they reappear, often more dramatically with the passage of time.

Dr. Smith bought a small practice 15 years ago, and through long hours of work and more tolerance on the part of his wife and kids than he cares to admit, he has grown it into a fairly large operation. He has a few associates, a burgeoning payroll obligation and monthly bills that would seem unbearable if clients weren't clamoring for his services. But over the last few years, Dr. Smith has grown tired. He's losing patience with the daily dramas of the staff, he feels like clients and employees underappreciate him and he's experiencing increasing guilt over the many band concerts, track meets and dance recitals he's missed.

When he realizes he only sees his children in the mornings because they're in bed by the time he gets home, he feels emotional, anxious and trapped. And these emotions aren't necessarily new. In fact, one of the reasons he's accumulated so many doctors and staff members over the years is so that he could take some time off to reacquaint himself with his family—and to try to stave off the burnout that's been creeping in. Plus, Dr. Smith has purchased some expensive new equipment with the hope that it would generate more income to support the ever-growing payroll and throw a little novelty into mundane daily practice life. But it's not working.

Finally, Dr. Smith realizes that the only thing that will genuinely salvage his psyche is simply to get into another role in the field of veterinary medicine: one where he's not putting out fires 24/7 and a day off is not a monumental logistical undertaking. He wants to sell his practice—the sooner the better.