Recently, I saw a meme saying something along the lines of, if you died, your job would replace you by the end of the week but your family will never replace you so spend your time wisely. Something like these:
These feel good memes make us feel warm and fuzzy for a split second as we scroll by. But rarely do they offer any actual usable and applicable advice or guidance.
This one got me thinking, though; I’m often thinking about time and how little I have and how poorly I prioritise and look after my time.
I know that, while my clients and students might miss me, they will be able to source suitable resources or another professional to help them achieve their goals. I am under no illusions!
I love my job and I really do aim for 100% commitment to bringing my clients and students the best support.
And in doing that, my nearest and dearest are definitely the ones I eek time from to give to my job. An unwilling compromise, perhaps.
I am sure many many self employed people will find this familiar and as so many in our industry tend to run their own businesses, this is likely something that is experienced by my colleagues, my students and other members of my community.
Professional Boundaries & Self-Care
There is a lot of talk about burnout and compassion fatigue in our industry, and, I am sure, many others. And rightly so; in animal care, we are notoriously bad at setting boundaries and prioritising our own care.
Self-care is presented and often thought of inaccurately and this piece does a great job of clarifying what it should be: Self-Care is not an Indulgence. It’s a Discipline.
This in-depth piece from HBR shows that Burnout is about your workplace, not your people.
This piece reports on a Gallup survey of 7,500 employees, finding the top reasons for burnout are unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from management, and unreasonable time pressure. These are organisational issues, rather than being under the control of the individual.
But this becomes more difficult when you are both your workplace and your people!
What are your boundaries and how do you set them? Be clear about both personal and professional boundaries and commit to them.
Things will pop up causing you to feel like you must compromise. Knowing your boundaries is one thing but it’s quite another to have the where-with-all to stick to them. Write company policies that help support you in committing to the boundaries you have set.
In the modern office-anywhere-and-everywhere, it’s important that you clarify and communicate boundaries in relation to hours of business, availability and responsibilities.
Use features on phones and messaging apps, such as setting to “do not disturb”, using automatic replies and redirecting communication to a more convenient medium, for example, instead of calling, please email.
Setting boundaries can seem daunting; be clear in what you can realistically do. Decide what your priorities are for a time period – what are the no-go areas? This might mean your phone is turned off or put out of sight during family time, for example.
Have a plan for when you feel your boundaries are being pushed. Take a step back and consider your course of action, rather than just reacting. Maybe you need some time to consider how you will respond.
Last minute appointments are not vital. Don’t squeeze them in if it doesn’t work for you. Remember, commit to what you can realistically do.
Giving free advice can be risky. First, know your worth and know that free advice is often not valued. But, offering advice without appropriate information gathering may be dangerous and ultimately damaging at a number of levels. We have responsibilities in our profession and gathering information appropriately before advising is important for safety and efficacy.
Make sure to communicate boundaries with your behaviour, and not just words. If something is not possible, it’s not possible. If you’re not available, you’re not available.
No is a complete sentence.
You can say no. Be polite about it and don’t hurt someone’s feelings or cause them to feel bad for asking. Redirect their behaviour and their request.
At the same time, you don’t need to be overly apologetic. Reframe problems into solutions; this helps your approach and that of your clients.
You can take time to think about how you say no, or whether you want to say no. Consider scheduling and define priorities.
Let the person know that you are considering their request and that you will revert as soon as possible. Don’t leave ’em hanging!
Define your role and responsibilities.
What is your job description? Define your role.
List out your responsibilities to your clients. To their pets.
That’s what you can do and that’s all you can do.
In our world, we are all about the animal and its safety and comfort. We can find it hard to compromise on this, but if we are not caring for ourselves, we won’t be much good in caring for others.
But, we must also be all about the humans, and the human-pet relationship. Sometimes, we find it difficult to put the same emphasis on applying our skills to the human end of the leash. It takes practice, for sure, and unfortunately many trainer education programs don’t emphasise this understanding, but we do. And we are. Here and right now.
You can’t control other people. You can only do your best and you must commit to that. Be honest about your skill set and knowledge. And be your best.
You can’t take personal responsibility for others’ behaviour. Your roles are based in supporting, teaching, educating, mentoring, coaching, counselling. Be your best at those; that’s where your energy needs to go.
How do you communicate the expectations that clients can realistically have of you?
They can’t understand your expectations unless you tell them!
What do they need to do to prepare for your session, how will you contact them, what are the sales T&Cs, what are your policies about cancelling, rescheduling, refunding?
What can they expect from you?
Be clear and communicate your expectations early on, before everything is booked and paid for. Before there will be confusion or disappointment. Before there is drama and distress.
Policies policies policies
A big part of business planning must be defining policies, and related procedures, for your business, your company and the day-to-day running.
Define boundary-breaking behaviours that stress you out, or could potentially stress you out. Have clear policies within your business for these to avoid them becoming a problem.
Update your policies based on feedback from your business performance. Record data and adjust and refine regularly.
The biggest challenge for new business owners, is that you are afraid to let anyone down or turn away business. I get it. But, before you even start, you need to erect those boundaries and have your business policies reflect them. And stick to them.
Stop celebrating exhaustion and over-work.
Compared to self-employed people, employees have a lot of provisions and protections in place to make sure they get appropriate breaks and have time off.
Do you know the legislated breaks and holidays for employees?
You are an employee in your business and it’s time you looked at making sure you have adequate breaks and holidays. Establish boundaries and policies and stick to your guns.
What do you need to do during down-time?
Sleeping, eating well, relaxing, taking time for other activities, hanging out with your nearest and dearest, having fun, resting. These are important for self-care so schedule time for them and don’t compromise.
Take time. At work.
We can harp on about self-care, but as we spend most of our time at work, that’s where we need to start. If you don’t take that time at work, doing lots of self-care at home just might not cut it.
Work will become a lot more enjoyable, doable and successful when you define, communicate and stick to your boundaries.
Having a breather between sessions will not only allow you to reflect on your last interactions and plans, but also put your best foot forward for your next session.
Taking breaks is not a reflection or your commitment and nor is working yourself to the bone.
Don’t be a hero; take your break.
We can’t change the sleepless nights, the pressure, the buck always stopping with you, but we can schedule smarter.
Schedule time during which you do all the business essentials, including breaks and self-care.
Give these vital activities enough time and don’t just squeeze them in.
What are the barriers to taking breaks or time off?
Collect data to investigate when is the best time, business wise. This helps you to best enjoy that time without too much worrying about what you might be missing out on.
Have specific time set aside to do admin and especially remote communications like emails and social media. It’s very easy to allow remote online communication and activity to encroach on all parts of your day.
That phone we carry around all the time allows us instant access to work and instant availability; even though it’s just one email here and one message there, it soon adds up, eating in to time needed for other work or self-care activities. This puts you under pressure, adding to feeling overwhelmed.
Market for the clients that you want and that your business needs. Charge appropriately to cover your costs and make sure pricing is reflective of the service you offer and expertise you provide.
Market for the clients that you can help best. Market your special skills and set yourself and prospective clients up for success.
Say yes to work that will enhance your skills, boost your confidence and provide a healthy level of challenge.
Take time to debrief.
Reflect on the challenges of the case, the humans, the dogs. Your performance.
Review one challenging aspect of the day, of the session, of the interaction. Learn from it and let it go. Acknowledge the things that went right, that you can build on.
Audio-record while you drive to save time.
What three priorities are you emphasising for that client? What challenges are you experiencing or foreseeing?
Talk to colleagues who will understand the challenges you face and who may be able to see the wood for the trees, when you can’t. This can be a tough business as we spend so much time alone, with our thoughts.
Make time to chat with colleagues who share your experience and can support you. If you must, vent, but don’t live there. Get it out of your system and move on – learn from it if required, but leave it behind.
Take time to respond to things that wind you up. Don’t respond when you are upset. Let it sit for twelve, or even better, 24 hours.
Acknowledge when you feel overwhelmed before you approach the point of no return. Stop and consider why it’s happening, and how you can move forward.
Understand cognitive distortions
Recognise the potentially damaging tricks your mind might play on you. When you feel yourself engaged in all or nothing thinking, catastrophising, succumbing to negative bias and impostor syndrome, stop and reflect.
You need a break to consider why you are feeling this way. Seek support from a colleague to help you analyse how you feel and decide on the best way to proceed.
More on compassion fatigue, for animal trainers and behaviour consultants, from Dr Vanessa Rohlf here.
Although compassion fatigue is most certainly something that many in our field will experience, if you are feeling overwhelmed or down, there can be other things that might be happening.
This is important to address and this piece does a nice job of outlining alternatives: The Myth of Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine.
These emotional challenges facing us in our work are, thankfully, becoming more and more recognised, which is excellent. Check out excellent resources and support:
Challenges in animal care
Although veterinary workplaces are discussed frequently, lots of other pros in other areas within animal care may experience burnout, feeling overwhelmed and exhaustion. These industries tend to have less structure and fewer professional programs in place.
As animal lovers and carers, we are drawn to professions that challenge our abilities to cope, making us more susceptible to taking on too much.
We have spoken about dealing with these challenges as dog trainers before: Somewhere In-between.
And this is a great piece, from Comfort At Home Pet Services, on considerations for walkers and sitters: Are you emotionally ready to be a pet sitter?
Build your skill, concentrate on foundations and be the best dog trainer you can be: What the world needs now…
The awesome thing for dog trainers is that we already have skills in modifying behaviour. Human behaviour is just that, it’s just behaviour. Don’t take it personally.
Call upon your skills: use management, redirection, differential reinforcement, make feedback available and meaningful, shape behaviour, and collaborate with the people you deal with. It’s just people training!