The author is a partner in the Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

Mark Hardesty, D.V.M.
Quiet is deafening when you expect sound. An idle milking parlor is like a tomb. The roar of silence softens some with the passage of time or if the space is repurposed. As long as the equipment remains, there is a special reverence for the work that was done and the despair of no longer doing that work.

The work itself had value and dignity. It was the care of animals. It was the production of food. The value of that work could not just be measured by its economic value. It was good just because it was done. It was good work.

In a silent barn, that work is no longer done. The cows are gone; so is the dairyman. We pray he is okay with where he is, and that he celebrates his new life. Change is hard.

The weight of worry

My experience is that parlors go silent for two reasons: money and frustration or burnout. You can find a lot of articles in this publication and others that talk about money.

Parlors go silent due to lack of money when the bank says they must or the owner does the math and says, “This isn’t working. We need to stop eroding equity and sell out.” We won’t talk about money in this article, but lack of it can lead to more frustration and burnout.

I’m not trained as a professional to talk about frustration and burnout, but I do have some experience. There have been three different periods in my career that I was just putting one foot in front of the other to get through the day. You wonder how you got to the point where you like and hate your job at the same time.

My burnout periods all had a common component of working very long hours with no breaks. They were also times when the dairy industry was financially challenged and attitudes were gloomy. It’s hard to find optimism in a business that struggles to pay the bills.

When times are tough, the clients that we try to help are less easily pleased with results. In a vet practice, if the clients aren’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Frustration and even depression can result from not being able to make a right decision.

My profession, like farming, is challenged because the details are the difference between success and failure. Those of us that strive for perfection carry our mistakes in our memories for years. It would be easier if we could forget our omissions or blame them on circumstances, but we are the type of people that take responsibility.

When things go poorly, we risk a frustration that can lead to depression and anger, even self-loathing. Veterinary medicine and farming both have suicide rates three to five times that of the general population. We need to change that.

Finding a balance

How do we avoid burnout? Tougher yet, how do we pull out of it once we are there?

Staying out of burnout has to do with what my daughters call work-life balance. That doesn’t fit well when working 12-hour days and trying to catch up on the weekends.

On our farms and practices, it means hiring help or having an operation large enough that everyone can get a break. One option is doing paperwork earlier in the morning and then taking off in the evening to enjoy family, friends, and hobbies.

It might mean taking time off for physical fitness that will help you be more productive. Thirty minutes three times a week of aerobic, flexibility, or weight training does wonders for stamina and attitude. Losing weight isn’t easy, but dietary change that takes off 1 pound of weight results in 5 pounds less impact on your joints with every step. That can put spring back in your step.

Wellness means getting enough sleep. I work better when I get six hours of sleep. It takes discipline to go to bed when it is still light out in the summer to get that in some nights.

Make family and friends a priority. I missed all my cousins’ weddings because I worked every Saturday during that time period. Later in life, I made it to most of our daughters’ school events and was even a band booster club officer. We can learn to balance.

How do you get out of burnout when your own voice is saying, “I’m tired, I can’t, or I don’t care?” You may do your job, but you aren’t enjoying it or fully engaged.

It helps to have a friend. Someone that says, “You do good work, and you deserve a break,” or “You need to give yourself a break and stop expecting perfection from yourself.” A Saturday morning men’s fellowship group is my anchor that says every walk of life has challenges, but we support you.

You may need to check that you don’t have a medical condition that is reducing your zest for life. For me, it was sleep apnea. I had it well under control with treatment years ago, but in the last year, the treatment wasn’t working so we needed to make an adjustment. A good night’s sleep is pretty important. It does wonders for your attitude. See your doctor for a checkup and discussion.

Celebrate the special things in life. For me, one of the great wonders of life is the time I get to spend with my grandson. You can bet that when my daughter calls for help, I figure out how to make that time available.

Christmas parties are a nice place to interact with those we don’t normally see. Be proud of what you do and help those nonfarm people understand how important your work is.

The best way to help ourselves is by helping others. Carving out time to volunteer can make the rest of our life have more meaning. I know a veterinarian that reads to preschool children for an hour each week. He has a great outlook on his work after many decades of it. Just going to the ag booster’s club meeting can give you purpose.

The next chapter

What if it really is time to let the parlor go silent? That’s okay, but let’s do it smart. Meet with your accountant about the tax implications of selling out. Talk with family members about your potential decision. You may feel like a load has been lifted, or you may feel the guilt of failure. Either way, you need to forgive yourself for not continuing to attempt success in a very tough business.

While we’re forgiving ourselves, this holiday season is also a good time to forgive others for those minor infractions they may have committed in the struggles of life. Please, adopt the understanding that all problems are temporary and the sun will come up tomorrow.

Merry Christmas and enjoy the holiday season.