Avoiding burnout – Part 1: How to recognize it

Occupational burnout isn’t a medically recognized condition—you won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), for example.

But according to veterinary consultant Josh Vaisman, CCFP, MAPPCP, it’s a very real condition: “The World Health Organization recently redefined burnout as an occupational phenomenon.”

Co-founder and lead consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting in Boulder, Colorado, Vaisman knows firsthand just how real occupational burnout is—he experienced it himself a few years ago, and it changed his life.

Although not a veterinarian, Vaisman has been in the veterinary world for two decades. At one point he was part-owner of a seven-doctor small animal practice, where he also served as the onsite hospital director—all while consulting on the side. A 150-mile round-trip commute and 55- to 70-hour work weeks were the norm.

“From the outside looking in, it looked like I had reached the pinnacle of the entrepreneurial journey,” Vaisman told NEWStat. “But, internally, I was growing more and more depleted and disengaged every day.” 

Workload was only part of it: The bigger problem was the way he was doing it, which had become all about numbers. “I started to put our financial performance ahead of the performance and experience of the people I was supposed to be leading,” Vaisman says. “That was a really depleting way to be. It just mismatched my core values.” 

But he also just felt like that’s what he was supposed to be doing. “And so I kept doing it, until one day I just couldn’t do it anymore. I completely and totally burned myself out.” 

Vaisman had a breakdown in his kitchen one morning while scrambling eggs: “I really hit rock bottom.” 

He said it was just an ordinary day like any other. “There wasn’t anything in particular that was happening. I wasn’t looking forward to a particularly difficult day. Nobody had said or done anything. I was just making breakfast for my wife and I, and all of a sudden, this physical sensation hit me, and I couldn’t hold onto the ladle. I had to set it down, and [I] sat down on the ground as I just completely broke down crying in the middle of my kitchen.” 

“I remember thinking to myself, I don’t actually know what’s happening to me. I don’t know why this is happening right now in this way, but it was as if suddenly all of that buildup had to be released in a very physical way. “

Vaisman acknowledged that burnout is a term that gets thrown around a lot. 

But he said the word “occupational” is key. 

“Burnout is not something that happens in your weekend hobbies; burnout is not something that happens in your personal life. Burnout is an occupational phenomenon that happens in and due to your work environment and conditions.”   

What does burnout look like?

Vaisman says occupational burnout manifests itself in three primary ways:

  • Extreme emotional exhaustion in and around work. “It’s a very tangible feeling that you literally have nothing left in the tank.”
  • Extreme cynicism or negativity. “Sometimes it’ll show up as somebody who we think of as that rockstar, positive contributing member of the team,” Vaisman said. “And it seems like overnight they’ve become the toxic team member. They’re just cranky about everything and unpleasant to be around.”
  • A sense of loss of self-efficacy or a loss of all belief in yourself. “Oftentimes it shows up as this sort of internal dialogue that ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, because nothing I do matters; I can’t make a difference. I’m incapable of changing anything or fixing anything or accomplishing anything here. I may as well just give up,’” he said.

Looking back at his own experience of burnout, Vaisman said he realized he was exhibiting the first two symptoms for months leading up to his breakdown: “I started to become the toxic team member.”

Worse yet, he was in a leadership position. “You can imagine the negative impact I was having on the team around me, but I didn’t realize it.” Other people realized, of course, but nobody on his team said anything. “I was the person at the top, and they were intimidated.”

The third symptom showed up that day in his kitchen.

Vaisman said that was the most painful part. He describes himself as naturally optimistic: “I’ve had this belief that even when things are hard, we’ll find a way to get through.” When that disappeared, “I had this sense that maybe I just don’t belong here, maybe I don’t belong in any of this, maybe I’m just not capable, maybe I just suck as a human being.” He says he had reached the point where he’d completely lost any sense of belief in himself. “That’s the part that hurts my heart the most.”

Yet he felt he had to soldier on:  “I kept telling myself, ‘You’re the entrepreneur. You’re the business owner. Put on your big boy pants and just keep going!’”  

Then, inevitably, he couldn’t.

Vaisman said it took him a few months, but he got past the breakdown “with the supportive and loving cajoling of my wife and partner” as well as support from a professional coach. 

With their help, and a lot of soul-searching, “I finally gave myself permission to step away from the environment that was contributing to this experience, and I did.”  

He sold his equity in the hospital, resigned his position as hospital director, left the consulting firm. “I just took some time to myself.”  

In that time, he had an epiphany: “It really struck me that the way we do things in this profession doesn’t always serve us in the best possible ways.” 

Vaisman said that as a profession, we’ve gotten really, really good at taking care of others, but we’re not that good at taking care of ourselves and our colleagues. And that’s a tragedy: “This work is such worthy, meaningful work that’s imbued with such a deep sense of mattering and impact in the world, it should contribute to our fulfillment. It shouldn’t deplete us. So I decided that I was going to try and find a better way that actually allows us to thrive, not just professionally but personally, and so that’s what I did.” 

He went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology. In 2019, he co-founded Flourish Veterinary Consulting.

“And I think I found it,” he said. “I think I found the better way.” 

Coming up in Part 2: How to help your staff overcome burnout and thrive.

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