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Five Ways to Survive Marathon Veterinary Shifts

  • February 8, 2017 9:42 PM EST

    We’ve all been there … those shifts scheduled as 10 or 12 hours that turn into 14, 16, or even 18 hour shifts!!  And the worst part is that we’re often scheduled for another shift the next day (or a few hours after we finish)!  These so-called marathon shifts can often leave us feeling physically spent, mentally exhausted, and emotionally drained.  Especially if we have the extra added stress of dealing with any heart-breaking euthanasias, challenging cases, or difficult clients.  But the bottom line is that we rarely have the option to adjust our schedule, such that we must find a way to forge ahead, survive the shift, and prepare for the next one. 

    In order for veterinarians and technicians working in emergency practice to survive these gruelling shifts, there are some things that can be done to help support the body, nourish the mind, and keep the emotional meltdowns at bay.  Remembering these five pointers can help to ensure that even if the shift is never-ending, YOU WILL SURVIVE! 

    1. Hydrate! 

      The importance of staying hydrated during a long shift cannot be over-stated.  This means drinking good old-fashioned water … not pop/soda, juice, coffee, tea, or energy drinks!  While the occasional caffeinated beverage, especially towards the beginning of the shift, is acceptable (especially if this is habit for you), consuming multiple caffeinated or sugary beverages will only serve to worsen your hydration and cause glycemic highs and lows, which can lead to fatigue, headaches, irritability, and even gastrointestinal upset.  In order to stay hydrated, bring a water bottle with you to work and ensure that you every few hours, especially if you are working up a sweat or drinking caffeinated beverages.  You can even set an alarm on your phone to remind you to drink water if needed.  And recognize that if you have not peed in the last 8 hours, you probably need to be drinking more water!

    2. Pack healthy snacks.

      Too often veterinarians and technicians do not make healthy choices when it comes to eating during shifts, whether it’s because we want to “treat” ourselves to junk food given the lengthy and difficult shift or because clients or co-workers are bringing in unhealthy snacks like donuts, cookies, and other carbohydrate-rich and sugar-filled treats.  Unfortunately, these also lead to massive fluctuations in our blood sugar, which is not ideal.  Instead, pack healthy foods in small portions that require no preparation and can be eaten between appointments or when sitting at the computer.  Examples include a banana or orange, apple slices (with or without peanut butter), lightly salted popcorn, cut vegetables (e.g., carrots, peppers, celery, grape tomatoes, snap peas with or without hummus), crackers with cheese, natural almonds or cashews, and Greek yogurt.  The key is that they are healthy, quick to eat, and low in preservatives or added sugar.
    3. Get a good sleep before. 

      The importance of sleep cannot be emphasized enough.  Without 7-9 hours of sleep before a lengthy shift, you are bound to feel tired, foggy, and less able to cope with some of the emotional ups and downs that occur in practice.  Unfortunately, especially with shift work, falling asleep (and staying asleep) can be difficult and is something that requires good sleep hygiene and what many people refer to as “setting the stage”.  Try to adopt a routine that begins 30 minutes before you go to bed, regardless of where or when you sleep, so that your body is cued to begin winding down.  This routine could include turning down the lights or closing the blinds, making a glass of chamomile tea or warm milk (contains L-tryptophan, which helps to trigger sleep), turning off all electronic devices, and then doing a relaxing activity such as reading a book, stretching, tidying up your living space, meditating, or practicing gentle yoga.  Only when you are relaxed and ready to sleep should you actually go to bed.

    4. Take time to breathe. 

      So often during these long shifts we adopt the habit of shallow breathing, which can contribute to anxiety and fatigue.  I can remember several emergency shifts when, towards the end, I would feel the need to gasp for air, almost as if my body had forgotten to breathe for several minutes!  As many times as possible during the day, take a moment to take a deep 4-5 second breath that fills the upper and lower chest and belly and then release it with a slow 5-6 second exhale.  Repeat this 3 times before returning to work and try to do this several times during the shift. 

    5. Don’t forget to debrief. 

      Debriefing is an important way to check-in with yourself at the end of your shift to determine what went well and what you could have done differently.  It’s also the time to talk through any distressing events, check that tasks are completed, hand over the care of your patients and clients, and say your goodbyes.  Finally, to symbolize the end of your work shift, it is important to de-role by taking off your name tag, scrub top, work shoes, etc. or use other personal rituals to signify that the shift is done and you are now out of role.    

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga/meditation teacher who also has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals.  She organizes Veterinary Wellness Workshops & Retreats for veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers.  To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here.  More information can be found at