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Veterinarian Wellness: Prevent Burnout, Prioritize Mental Health

During the last two years, we’ve all heard a lot about burn out, fatigue, trauma, and depression among medical staff. We’ve come to see these folks as heroes as we get to understand the gauntlet that they’re up against day in and out. A group that could be lost in the crowd of health care providers, but who often suffer just the same, are veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and veterinary technicians.

 

No, caring for an animal isn’t the same as caring for a human being, on multiple levels. But the emotions that accompany the experience are, and they take a real toll. In this article, we’re going to get into just what vets are experiencing right now, and how they can cope with increasing stress levels while still doing what they love. 

 

The Issue

 

Yesterday’s pet owners are today’s pet parents, and this popularized term underscores what’s at the heart of the stresses that come with being a petcare provider: owners often view their pets as family members, as children, even. Folks invest time, effort, and money in seeking the very best for their pets on all fronts––food, toys, accessories, and general nutrition and wellness. So when they bring their furry baby into your practice, they are already in a heightened state, because their family member is in trouble. 

 

But what they don’t realize is that diagnosing and treating a pet is infinitely more difficult than treating a human patient. And unlike our human family members, who can typically tap into insurance coverage to pursue expensive treatment options, oftentimes the only way to save a pet is through pricey treatment that is simply out of reach for the average pet parent. On top of dealing with clients’ emotional pain, and caring for a sick animal, vets also find themselves in the middle of an ethical dilemma and often have to euthanize pets that could potentially be saved. Even if the pet has legitimately reached their end, euthanasia is never easy.

 

Compounding this very real problem is the fact that in recent polling, we learned that one in five households–approximately 23 million American homes–added a furry family member sometime during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a lot of additional pets out there, and each and every one will need veterinary care at some point. Plus all that time spent at home could have uncovered a pet’s hidden illness, which also means a trip to the vet. From routine vaccines to illness or the worst tragedy that a pet owner could face, veterinarians see it all. And unlike the pet owner who goes through it and then likely has time and space to grieve, vets and their assistants experience it over, and over, and over again. That intensity and the sheer onslaught of emotions and stress can’t be ignored.

 

The Mental Health Effect

 

As if the situation couldn’t be more dire, we also have to factor in the reality that with such a high demand, veterinarians and veterinary staff are consistently overworked. This leads to sleep deprivation, anxiety, burnout, and worse. Many of these conditions exacerbate the root problem, and catch veterinarians in a vicious cycle of dwindling mental health. Terms like “empathy overload” and “compassion fatigue” are used to describe the situation vets find themselves in when attempting to care for a sick animal while comforting owners. On the other end of the spectrum, they can also deal with grieving pet owners who, not knowing how to manage their grief, strike out against vets and staff, becoming abusive in person or online. 

 

In such situations, veterinarians admit that it can be hard to draw the line, and that it can be very tricky to manage their own mental health. A CDC study from 2014 uncovered statistics that showed that one out of 6 veterinarians has considered suicide at some point. We can only imagine that this number has increased since then, and especially in the light of what vets have dealt with during these past two years. The survey also bore out data that showed that female vets are more likely to carry out suicide than both their male counterparts and the general population. Since the vast majority of vets are female, this is yet another worrisome trend that has wide-sweeping consequences, both for individuals and the veterinary profession as a whole.

 

The Cost of Burnout

 

Burnout can lead to detrimental behaviors and can even cost veterinarians, nurses, and veterinary technicians their lives. Those intangibles are made real by statistics. But there’s one key data point that could help to take the discussion out of the subjective realm and drop it squarely into the industry’s lap: burnout also has a very real economic impact

 

Whatever its cause, veterinary burnout generally leads to feelings of depletion, a decrease in professional competency, and a distancing or disconnection from one’s work. Feelings of negativity or cynicism are also common. All combined, these symptoms of a deeper issue can lead to higher turnover rates, reduction in a clinic’s hours, and a decrease in consumer confidence. Burnout is a serious, far-reaching problem that affects the individuals experiencing it and the veterinary profession as a whole. In total, a study found that burnout among veterinarians and veterinary technicians could be at the root of almost $2 billion in annual losses. 

 

There are so many reasons to work toward a solution.

 

How To Cope

 

Finding effective ways to deal with the threat of burnout is a crucial step for every clinic and every veterinary professional to take. Experts suggest improving communication, workflow, and leadership throughout a practice, which might include down-to-earth discussions about work-life challenges, along with ways to share responsibilities, and thus workloads, where possible. There are plenty of practical tips out there to help veterinary professionals to remove bottlenecks, time pressure, and other obstacles so as to give efficient patient care that doesn’t overly tax providers.

 

On the personal front, a first step can be listening to colleagues when they suggest that you seem abnormally tired, distant, or that you’ve become increasingly cynical––these observations  are generally made from a place of love and concern for both you and your clients. Understanding that burnout is not a failure or a deficiency, but instead a symptom of a larger problem that could metastasize and become a deadly threat, can be another way to lean into a solution. In the end, remember that the goal is to reverse this worrying trend and move toward a more mental-health-conscious approach to providing veterinary care. 

 

If you are noticing worrying trends in your own behavior or thinking, please don’t feel that you have to manage it all on your own. The Veterinary Mental Health Initiative was founded by a veterinarian and it offers free support groups along with one-on-one help to vets across the country. Advisors are professionally trained and aware of the issues you deal with as a veterinarian. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) also offers countless wellness tips and related articles that are worth a read. But we aren’t naive, we know that even with all the resources available, crises can hit strong and deep at times. In those moments, know that you or someone you know can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for immediate, emergency help (1-800-273-TALK (8255)).

 

Besides reaching out to professional organizations, there are some everyday things that you can do to cope, from healthy eating and exercise, to having fun with your favorite people and pets. And never underestimate the value of adequate rest––it’s importance is well-researched and -documented. Pinpointing a relaxation technique can also help to destress and allow you to unwind on days off, whether it entails snuggling up and escaping with a good read, engaging with a mindful meditation or yoga practice, relishing a spa day, or spending time outdoors or involved in a much-loved hobby. Whatever it is that makes you feel refreshed and at peace, that needs to be a regular part of your life to facilitate not just coping, but safely processing the inevitable host of negative emotions and experiences that you’ll encounter on the job. 

 

Taking advantage of the AVMA’s QPR suicide prevention training can help you to take proactive steps to help others, but it can also help you work through your own mental health struggles. All these things combined can go far to ensure that you’re doing what you can to promote health and to be your and your staff’s advocate.

 

Genuine Concern with a Dose of Petcare Insurance

 

 

We love our veterinary clients, you’re part of our extended family of sorts, and we want to see you pursuing and realizing dreams. You can’t do that if you succumb to burnout. So we’re here to share some resources and to let you know that we genuinely, from the bottom of our hearts, care. 


So take a quiet moment and reflect. If you think you could be managing stress better, there’s no shame in seeking help. It will only be for the better of your business, employees, patients, and clients––and yourself––if you reach out. The opposite is true, too. So take your time, think this through, and know that we’re here if you need to vent, chat, or ask about what’s covered in your petcare policy. At least that’s one stressor we can take off the table for you. We’re honored that you’ve entrusted us with your future, and we’ll never take that trust for granted. Take care out there, for real. Get in touch any time.

This blog post does not provide insurance advice and is intended for information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional insurance advice from a licensed representative. Never ignore professional insurance advice because of something you have read in this blog post. Contact your licensed representative if you have any questions about your insurance policy.