Updated: 4 days ago
Burnout in Veterinary Medicine has ravaged our community since the beginning of our profession. Here are the 5 best tips to help you fight veterinary burnout.
What is Veterinary Burnout?
According to the definition by Merriam-Webster, ‘Burnout’ is the “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”. As you know, veterinary professionals experience significant stressors that cause this ethical issue.
This is not to be confused with ‘Compassion Fatigue’, which by Merriam-Webster is, “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time”.
The significance here is that burnout can be experienced with apathy, but compassion fatigue cannot occur without empathy. It is important to be able to recognize the difference so that an adjustment can be made in accordance to one's lifestyle.
Who Is Affected by Burnout in Vet Med?
One of the biggest risks those in the veterinary industry face, yet rarely talk about, is the very real possibility of burnout in veterinary medicine. In fact, according to a recent study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) which evaluated job stress and satisfaction, more than 35% of those surveyed were considered to be at a “high risk of burnout.”
And it’s not just veterinarians that are at risk, either. The study revealed that burnout is something every person on the team should be concerned about, from managers and technicians to assistants and receptionists. Burnout can lead to a whole host of problems for your practice, from low morale to high turnover to client dissatisfaction and even a negative impact on profitability.
The good news is, the study also revealed that strong team effectiveness can play a significant role in reducing the risk of veterinary burnout.
Why is Burnout Increasing Within Veterinary Medicine?
Public perception, student loan debt, and pay inequality are among the highest reasons for burnout in veterinary medicine.
Veterinarians, veterinary practice owners, Technicians/Nurses, Assistants, and Receptionists will all tell you that the public seems to think that all they do all day is play with puppies and kittens. In reality, those precious well-visit vet appointments are few and far between. We most often nurse sick patients and injured animals, or provide humane euthanasia for patients with quality of life concerns. Between these vet appointments and working with clients who have a sense of entitlement for their animal to be seen (because some refuse to believe you don’t just play with puppies and kittens); it’s debilitating.
The student loan debt for veterinarians in particular is atrocious as many leave school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and are expected to start a successful practice from scratch, make a profit, but also charge owners an affordable rate of service for their animals.
Qualified Technicians, who at minimum have a two-year nurse degree, are facing significant pay inequalities as many are being paid at a rate equivalent to a non-qualified technician or an assistant.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. The veterinary industry is struggling with toxic energy and it is important to recognize this and take the appropriate steps to make your practice, and the animals in your care, as best as possible. Here are a few things you can do to further improve working conditions for your staff.
Foster a Healthy Work-Life Relationship
Try to encourage your employees to have a good work-life balance. It can be hard at times, especially with the current staffing crisis. However, when you and your employees are at home, their minds should also be at home.
The best advice one can give here is to encourage workplace boundaries. Whenever an employee is at home, do your best to encourage other employees not to contact each other about work unless it is an emergency. This will drastically help reduce the burnout felt amongst your staff and, additionally, help everyone detach from their work while enjoying self care and relaxation at home.
According to the JAVMA researchers, “Increasing work engagement may prevent and alleviate burnout by enhancing an individual employee’s energy, vigor, and resilience.” Another important discovery was the correlation between engagement and job satisfaction levels. There are a number of ways to improve individual engagement in a veterinary practice setting. For instance, you should:
Focus on making each employee feel like an integral part of the team;
Acknowledge each individual’s contributions to the big picture and their role in the practice’s success;
Encourage and promote personal and professional development opportunities;
Empower employees by providing access to ongoing support and guidance as well as information about hospital decisions and activities;
Provide ample resources to help team members perform their jobs at a high level;
Offer plenty of opportunities for career growth and development.
Develop a Better Environment
Experts believe that creating and maintaining a coordinated team environment can dramatically improve the effectiveness and engagement of your employees. In order to develop and support this type of environment within your practice, the JAVMA study’s authors recommend several suggestions based on their research. They are as follows:
Routinely evaluate the internal communications of your practice to ensure that every team member has access to the most current, relevant information;
Provide the opportunity for team members to give suggestions aimed at improving patient care, client service and internal operations of your practice;
Recognize the contributions of your employees and provide them with knowledge and career development opportunities.
The less toxic your workplace environment is, the less likely your hospital or practice will be to experience burnout. Toxic team environments breed a lack of respect, distrust of management and overall employee dissatisfaction, which leads to higher turnover. To eliminate this within your practice, researchers recommend employing the following steps:
Establish and maintain a zero-tolerance policy for incivility amongst employees;
Facilitate information sharing to build respect and foster trust;
Improve HR hospital practices to recruit and retain a higher caliber of workers (preferably those that are best suited for your practice’s culture);
Avoid overloading employees with too much work by either increasing staff or modifying/rotating individual work duties;
Identify and resolve existing conflicts amongst team members efficiently;
Always ensure that every employee is treated fairly and equitably.
Burnout in veterinary medicine has individuals just one step away from depression and, possibly, suicide. Not One More Vet (NOMV) is an initiative that has taken the task of suicide awareness and prevention within veterinary medicine. They have recognized the dire need of transformative mental health and well-being within veterinary medicine and strive to provide support, resources, and education for individuals, veterinary practice owners, and the general public.
According to Debbie Stoewen and her research through the Canadian Veterinary Journal, veterinary professionals have a suicide rate four times higher than the general population. According to Stoewen, men are 4 times more likely to succumb to suicide, while women attempt suicide 4 times more often than men. According to a 2020 study by Merck, there has been an “extreme increase of psychological stress in women veterinarians”. Considering women have a considerably higher rate of suicide attempts, it is important to note that 40% of people who have attempted suicide in the past will attempt again.
Talk to your employees and encourage an open-door policy, where staff know they can come and speak to you if they are having mental health (or any other) difficulties. Additionally, providing the following resources in an employee commonplace, may help any that are fearful of speaking up, find professional help and curb a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255
Employee burnout is a very real ethical issue in businesses of every industry, and the veterinary field is no exception. By acknowledging this fact and taking proactive measures, such as the recommendations listed above, you can reduce the risk of burnout for your team, encourage healthy states of mind, and keep your practice running like a well-oiled machine.
DVM Elite supports you, your staff, and the collective mental health of the veterinary industry. Implement these 5 steps into your practice and you will find a successful, healthy workplace. Your employees will know that you care about them and their mental health, their work ethic will improve, and your practice will flourish. Need more guidance or hands-on help? Talk to one of our practice coaches. Take the steps necessary today and see a difference in your practice tomorrow!
Merck & Co, & Brakke Consulting (Eds.). (2020, January). Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study 2020. Retrieved July 29, 2020
Stoewen, D. L. (2015, January). Suicide in veterinary medicine: Let's talk about it. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 56(1), 89-92. Retrieved July, 2020