Dr Marie Holowaychuk discusses self-care and preventing burnout ahead of ECC Virtual Congress 2021
‘People have the misconception that it’s buying a latte on the way to work or opening a bottle of wine at home and binge-watching a whole series on Netflix.’
Dr Marie Holowaychuk DVM DACVECC CYT is a board-certified small animal ECC specialist and passionate advocate for veterinary team wellbeing, a topic she’ll discuss in four different sessions at ECC Virtual Congress 2021.
Now based in Calgary, Marie has spent over 15 years practising ECC medicine in academic and private referral hospital settings.
She’s an Assistant Editor for the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care and has authored or co-authored over 30 manuscripts in various peer-reviewed journals.
Aside from her achievements in the veterinary sphere, Marie is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher and facilitates wellness workshops and retreats for veterinary clinics.
In this Q&A, Marie discusses her veterinary background and how her past mental health struggles fuel her ongoing passion for preventing burnout and exhaustion among veterinary professionals. We also look at what to expect from each of Marie’s lectures at this year’s ECC Virtual Congress.
Tell us about your veterinary background.
Both my parents were veterinarians – they actually met at vet school – so I don’t think there was ever really a plan B for me! I graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan and I fell in love with ECC during my internship at Washington State University. My mentor was an Emergency and Critical Care specialist; I loved how fast-paced and challenging it was and getting to run with cases when we were on our own in the hospital overnight.
You’ve done a lot of work with wellbeing in the veterinary profession. How did that come about?
My interest in personal and professional wellbeing really stemmed from my own struggle with burnout. I have lived with mental illness, anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. I’ve fumbled and stumbled and got back up again by recognising the tools that have helped me.
So, what were the issues?
I was at a vet school teaching for five years and it really seemed like the perfect role for me, but I was burning myself out. I just wasn’t taking time to look after myself and there was very little work-life separation. I was on call 50% of the time and when I was on call, I thought I might as well actually be at work. It was a vicious cycle, and I couldn’t see any way out but to leave. I moved back to Alberta, where I grew up, and did locum work alongside travelling for speaking. But I found myself in the same pattern of workaholism, only without the colleagues and residents you have around you in academia.
What was the turning point?
It came in the most dramatic of circumstances. I was rushing around one afternoon when I was in a traffic accident, which wasn’t my fault. My car was a total write-off and I suffered whiplash and other injuries. That accident was a wake-up call. It was like a sign telling me I needed to slow down and change my life. I had to take time off anyway to recover and with some money I got through the accident, I trained to be a yoga teacher. During that time I really learned about mindfulness and meditation and thinking about mental health and wellbeing. It was an epiphany.
That was a real change of direction for you.
I started writing blog posts, sharing things that helped me and offering retreats for veterinarians here in the Rocky Mountains. I have done lots of certifications in life coaching, mental health, mindfulness and much more. And I started speaking more about wellness at conferences, which wasn’t something we spoke about when I was in vet school. I’m happy to see that’s changing, but the profession is really struggling and we need help more than ever before. We’re at overload because of high caseloads and staffing shortages. The way we practice now is so different and clients are more demanding, so we need to carve out time for ourselves so we can show up fit and ready to do our job.
"I started speaking more about wellness at conferences, which wasn’t something we spoke about when I was in vet school. I’m happy to see that’s changing, but the profession is really struggling and we need help more than ever before."
Dr Marie Holowaychuk
That takes us nicely on to your Congress sessions. First is ‘It’s veterinary practice, not perfection!’ (Thursday, November 4 at 16.45).
So many veterinary practitioners are perfectionists with such high standards, but perfectionism is associated with mental health problems. They feel distressed that they can’t always be practising to the gold standard they want. So, I’ll be talking about identifying where those perfectionist tendencies pop up and sharing strategies on how to shift to having more realistic expectations.
Next up is ‘Practical strategies that preserve sanity’ (Thursday, November 4 at 18.00).
Preserving sanity is really all about preserving a bit of separation from work. Not thinking or talking about work is very important for wellbeing. So, I’ll be talking about boundaries, debriefing at the end of the day and saying no to certain things. You can’t always be at the whim of someone else. I ask people to really turn work off when you’re not there. You need to give your brain a break and reconnect with what’s important outside of veterinary medicine.
Then it’s ‘Stop using coping strategies and start practising self-care’ (Friday, November 5 16.45).
Self-care has become a trendy term but a lot of the time, what’s being suggested does not meet the criteria for self-care. People have the misconception that it’s buying a latte on the way into work or opening a bottle of wine at home and binge-watching a whole series on Netflix. Those strategies might be comforting in the short term, but they typically aren’t health-promoting and they aren’t going to serve you in the long term. Self-care is really meant to build up our reserves so that when we have a stressful shift, we don’t feel the need to veg out on the couch. We still have the energy to make healthy choices like going for a walk or reconnecting with a loved one. Self-care isn’t always eating chocolate and having a bubble bath, sometimes it’s booking an appointment with a counsellor or having the meeting with a financial advisor to sort out those money concerns hanging over your head.
And finally, it’s ‘Handling difficult conversations in the ER’ (Friday, November 5 18.00).
I’ll be talking about how we handle conversations with clients over euthanasia procedures, finance, expectations and with those who are angry or frustrated. How do we deal with situations that get heated and how do we handle ourselves? Everyone is under a tremendous amount of pressure and emotions seems to be running very high. I hear more than ever that clients are getting harder to deal with, so I’ll have practical strategies on how to defuse those situations.
Who do you think will benefit from your sessions?
Absolutely everyone working in a practice or clinic. The beauty of wellbeing sessions is that a lot of the skills translate into your happiness at home, not just professionally.