In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses well-being in veterinary medicine.

April 2021

Well-being in 8 words or less? (Why wellness is not a pithy bumper sticker)

I love quotes: funny ones, inspiring ones, clever ones, ones I can jot on a Post-It and stick to my planner, and especially ones I can stick on the bumper of my messy car. They get me thinking, and sometimes they help me organize my thoughts – particularly when life gets a bit chaotic. I frequently use them when I teach, too, because who doesn’t love a little dash of perspective from someone else’s mouth?

The trouble with pithy quotes – particularly the ones having to do with health and well-being, is that they don’t help me organize (much less direct) my behavior. Ever. I can whole-heartedly agree with the idea that, “You can’t serve from an empty vessel” (both literally and metaphorically, thanks Eleanor Brownn!). However, that snippet of inspiration doesn’t make me go to bed earlier. Nor does it inspire me to get my butt on the mat for 30 minutes of yoga – which I know would do me a world of good, even when it will require energy and time I insist I don’t have. Come to think of it, I’ve never had a quote compel me to choose a piece of fruit over the bright orange glow that beckons seductively from inside that open bag of Cheetos, particularly when I’m up to my eyeballs in a no-good, very bad day.

So enough with the platitudes already. Here’s the inconvenient truth: wellness is really hard work consisting of intentional, moment-to-moment choices to do what is best for the well-being of my body, mind, and spirit even when there are a billion things I would rather do… when there are loads of other tasks piling up on my plate… when my fear of falling short, or letting people down, or losing out on something important is starting to yell loudly in my right ear. (I’m aware fear manifests differently for everyone – mine is persistently right-leaning.) Wellness requires that I foreground the care of my whole self, else I am in no position to serve anyone. Wellness is not self-indulgent or selfish. It is, instead, the set of behaviors from which all service springs.

Truth in these words, however!

Wellness is also inherently value-based. When I say I value compassion, but I do not afford that to myself when I’ve said the wrong thing or made a mistake… well, I’m not living my values very well. When I say I value innovation, but I’m regularly too depleted and over-committed to be able to think clearly and creatively, what does that mean for bringing my values into my work? Wellness is about activating our values moment to moment, regardless of whether we are at home, at work, or interacting with our larger community. It’s about walking the talk, particularly when I’m trumpeting the importance of protecting the health and wellbeing of people who work in service professions. It’s about having boundaries — around my time, my personal space, and my energy — that I communicate and enforce, but resist the urge to explain or apologize for. Because I love my work. And I love a quiet dinner with my family, a cuddle with my dogs, a marathon chat with my best friend, and blissful device-free time more. I don’t want to reach the finish line wishing I had devoted extra energy to the latter than the former.

In high-pressure professional environments filled with perfectionism and over-performing, wellness is also about courage. These environments, which tend to produce exhaustion and bone-weary cynicism by default, beg for grounded leaders who bring health and well-being into everything they do. This is not easy, because the culture of bootstrapping is a strong force. However, the courage to guard our most valuable resource (HINT: ourselves) has the potential to produce vibrant, productive, engaged, and creative workers, teams, and organizations. It also has the potential to manifest the very best of service work: because people who are whole, grounded, and restored treat others in kind.

So don’t ditch your bumper stickers and inspiring memes – just move beyond them. Act as if you matter, starting right now. Because you do. And you will be all the healthier for those actions.

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