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Being married to the job

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HAVE you heard the one about the vet whose phone rings at 02.00?

‘Is this the vet?’, pleads a distraught young man.

‘Yes,’ the vet says. ‘Is this an emergency?’

‘Yes, yes,’ says the caller, ‘My dogs were getting frisky and they appear to be stuck together. I tried putting the hose on them but they're still stuck. What else can I do?’.

The vet sighs and says, ‘Alright, tell them they're wanted on the phone. Immediately.’

‘That's ridiculous,’ the caller replies incredulously. ‘Are you seriously suggesting that will stop them?’.

‘Oh yes,’ says the vet. ‘It certainly stopped me.’

I used to find that joke hilarious for the punch-line, but lately I find it funny because the concept of a vet enjoying an intimate moment with a significant other at any time of the evening is so foreign that it's laughable. I've seen so many colleagues suffer relationship breakdowns because they're effectively married to the job.

If I had to make an inventory of all the aspects of being a vet that can negatively impact on relationships, I'm not sure where it would end. Granted, after-hours loads for many veterinarians are much reduced compared to 10 years ago, but lack of sleep is definitely a factor, as are long days, being covered in bodily secretions, negotiating workplace politics, helping critical clients, sometimes life-and-death decisions, euthanasia and its unglamorous corollary, carcase disposal, and never being able to complete a single task without being asked to do something else.

The danger is that the partner one comes home to can seem like yet another person in the queue of those who want a piece of you. Why is it that I can lend a sympathetic ear to a client who wants to download about the impact of her dog's chronic constipation on her life, yet I switch off as soon as my husband starts banging on about having a bad day?

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And have I mentioned the phone? One of my colleagues was on a skiing holiday with her boyfriend, who is also a vet, and he took a phone call in the bar one evening from a distressed colleague. From his end of the conversation she could tell that the caller was concerned about whether a cat had FIP. The conversation continued for 20 minutes. It didn't matter to the caller that the cat was deceased – he or she couldn't stop agonising about the case.

While switching the phone off may go some way to restoring peace with your partner (by at least demonstrating that they're worthy of your undivided attention), we also need to make time for those impromptu meetings with colleagues that act as pressure valves, relieving stress. The key is balancing them both.

Most of us can't stop worrying, but we could learn to worry better. In his book, ‘How to Worry Less About Money’, philosopher John Armstrong writes about unproductive worry (about money or anything else really). ‘Our natural tendency is to spin from one worry to another, we change topic, as it were, but do not really get anywhere,’ he wrote. ‘A more desirable habit of thinking is one in which worries are held in the mind, so that they can be turned into genuine enquiries.’

That works best if we can dedicate a specific time to recording and acting on those enquiries. The theory is that worrying more productively might allow us to be more present for our loved ones and genuinely recharge when we have time out. Just like our patients and their owners, our relationships need protected time for nurturing.

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