Advice: Overdue & Under Pressure

Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD), Flourish Veterinary Consulting, Boulder, Colorado

ArticleLast Updated October 20224 min read
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Dear Second Opinion,

I really need a vacation. The last time I took time off was a long weekend over 6 months ago. I have plenty of PTO [paid time off] to use, but finding someone to cover my shifts is impossible. I am supposed to have an entire week off next month. I requested the week off 3 months in advance per our clinic’s PTO policy. Now the office manager is telling me that the clinic has been unable to find relief coverage for that week and if I want to go, I will have to ask my coworkers to take those scheduled shifts. My colleagues are all just as overworked as I am. The thought of asking them to cover for me has me so anxious that I’m contemplating canceling my vacation.

I want to be flexible and a team player, but I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. I know this is not sustainable. Is it really my responsibility to make sure my PTO is covered? How can I ask my colleagues to take my shifts when I know it will be a burden on them?

—Overdue for a Break

Dear Overdue,

Oof. I can feel your exhaustion and concern through the words on the page. Between your genuine need for a break and your hope to not overburden your fellow team members, it’s got to feel like being caught between an abscessed anal gland and cleaning out the parvo isolation kennel. Both options stink.

On one end of the spectrum is your vacation. On the other is your team. Your manager is putting the obligation of shift coverage squarely on your shoulders.

What you’re navigating is the tension between two polarities. This is a common experience for all of us. While some things in life offer a crystal clear “either/or” path (either I wait for the truck to pass before I cross the road or I’ll be seriously hurt), most of our important decisions are fuzzy, messy, and awkward. That’s because the “best” path often exists somewhere between two polar options.

In the face of a really important polarity, it can start to feel as if the poles are the only options. But that’s rarely the case. Between poles, there is a lot of opportunity. So how do we seize that opportunity and come to a workable decision?

Here's one way:

For example, an upside of “Take vacation” might be, “I get some much-needed rest away from work.” An upside of “Cancel vacation” might be, “My team doesn’t feel more overworked.”

What’s something in between these two upsides? Perhaps an option could be: “Talk to my team about my exhaustion. Ask them, If I took vacation, how much time without me do you think you could handle?

One final word. You asked if it really is your responsibility to make sure your shifts are covered. Logistically, I suppose my answer is, “yes, if that’s the policy in the employee handbook you agreed to when you were hired.” That said, morally I’d say absolutely not. You gave more-than-ample advanced notice to your employer, following practice policy.

The care of a team’s well-being is not the sole responsibility of each team member. In an environment in which some people have certain authority (eg, the clinic owner or manager), some responsibilities are more heavily weighted to those leaders’ shoulders. If your manager wants a team that can perform at its best and stays employed at their hospital, that manager should make that team’s well-being a priority.

To the practice leaders who may be reading this, take note. It’s entirely possible—perhaps even likely—your team members are struggling with similar dilemmas as Overdue. Are your policies (written or implied) supporting your team’s well-being? Or are you unintentionally making it difficult for them to thrive? Burned out teams serve no one well.

I hope you find the rest—and peace—you deserve, Overdue.

All the best,