Battling Burnout in Veterinary Medicine

veterinary staff member

By Crista Wallis, DVM

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the veterinary industry was struggling with burnout and compassion fatigue. Two sides of the same coin, these exhausting emotional conditions take a huge toll on our veterinary community, and are one of the top reasons professionals leave the field. 

Learning how to spot the early stages of burnout before it can progress to the point where a team member wants to quit and find a new career path is crucial for managing the veterinary short-staffing crisis. Once you can quickly spot impending burnout in your employees or yourself, you can take steps to manage the mental overwhelm, creating a more positive outlook on your job’s demands.

What is the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue?

Veterinary medicine attracts people with a deep-rooted desire to relieve animal suffering. High levels of compassion, a deep awareness of pain, perfectionist tendencies, and a strong sense of empathy are what allow veterinary professionals to do their job well. However, these same traits are what also make us vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue.

Burnout describes the physical and emotional exhaustion that occurs when a person feels powerless and overwhelmed at work. This results from repeated exposure to work-related stressors, often in combination with lifestyle-related stressors. Examples of common stressors include:

  • Feeling little or no control over work situations
  • Lack of recognition for a job well done
  • Overly demanding job expectations
  • Doing work that is not challenging
  • Working in a high-pressure environment
  • Working long hours 
  • Not taking time off
  • Feeling overwhelmed by family demands
  • Not having an adequate support system

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.” – Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, M.A.

Compassion fatigue results from a veterinary professional’s relationship with sick or dying pets and the empathy they feel for the family. This condition stems from caring so much for others, and leads to profound emotional exhaustion or an inability to continue caring. 

Compassion fatigue is also exacerbated by repeated exposure to morally stressful events. For example, working in a short-staffed practice where patients are not getting sufficient care, performing a treatment or procedure that is not standard of care, or euthanizing a pet that could be saved if the owners could afford care all lead to moral distress, which culminates in compassion fatigue over time.

Too often, veterinary professionals think that if they simply change jobs, their signs will go away. While taking time off or decreasing work responsibilities can help resolve burnout, compassion fatigue will follow the person wherever they go if they are not taking steps to prevent it.

veterinarian helping veterinary staff

What are the signs of burnout in veterinary professionals?

Burnout typically displays signs related to emotional exhaustion, cynicism about work, and a low sense of professional accomplishment. When a team member is burned out, they are often unable to meet work demands, they lose interest or motivation, their productivity is reduced, their energy levels drop, and they may feel helpless, resentful, or frustrated. 

If you or a team member are experiencing burnout, you may notice the following:

  • Physical exhaustion that leads to illness
  • Finding no pleasure or excitement with good experiences during the day, such as puppy or kitten visits, or not feeling rewarded when you solve a difficult case and improve the pet’s health
  • Becoming closed off to your coworkers and not taking part in conversations or team activities
  • Finding excuses to leave work early or take longer lunches
  • Feeling guilty or anxious for failing to heal every pet

If you find yourself not feeling the same passion for veterinary medicine as you once did, you may be experiencing burnout.

veterinarian in vet hospital

How can burnout in veterinary medicine be managed?

Although battling burnout in the later stages can be challenging without a lengthy leave from the veterinary field, steps can be taken to manage burnout before it sets in. Preventing burnout completely may be impossible, but you can greatly reduce its negative effects with some of the following methods:

  • Enforce lunchtime and breaks — Your team is a group of hard workers, so they may opt to skip lunch to nurse a hospitalized patient, input records, or troubleshoot that finicky blood machine. However, ensure each team member takes an adequate break for lunch and, if needed, throughout the day to recover from a mentally or physically exhausting case. 
  • Implement a mentorship program for new hires — Don’t throw your new employees to the wolves on day one. Instead, create a mentorship program to help them feel comfortable with the protocols, patients, and clients in your practice before taking off their training wheels. As perfectionists, veterinary professionals want to do things right from the beginning, and making a mistake because they don’t know a hospital’s protocols is incredibly stressful. 
  • Use your staff’s strengths — Do you have a phenomenal technician who thrives on difficult anesthetic cases? Schedule those dental patients with comorbidities on their day, instead of picking the day with the least experienced technician. Or, if your staff has skills outside of patient care, foster these strengths. For example, the technician in my hospital is an excellent artist, so she designs our monthly specials board, in addition to painting pictures for the hospital. 
  • Hang a “culture board” in your hospital Promote a positive culture in your hospital and foster a good relationship between coworkers by hanging a culture board. This board is a place where staff—and clients—can leave gratitude messages for employees, and highlight hospital or personal wins. 
veterinary staff gratitude messages
  • Nurture a soothing atmosphere in your hospital — Play relaxing or fun music for your team in the back, and add a soothing soundtrack up front. You can also design a decompression room that allows your staff a private place to unwind and work through an emotional case.
  • Use online discussion groups for support — There are numerous online discussion and support groups, like Not One More Vet, that are strictly for the mental well-being of veterinary professionals. Make these groups known to your team and encourage their use.
  • Check in with your team — Perform regular check-ins with your team outside of annual reviews to ensure they are feeling supported and fulfilled. Use this one-on-one time to see if there are any ways to improve workflows within the hospital to alleviate stress, and to see what you can do to boost your team’s happiness.
  • Take time off — Use your vacation time, no matter what! Avoid letting that PTO go to waste, and instead use it to recharge and decompress, coming back refreshed and with new enthusiasm for the daily grind.

Burnout in veterinary medicine is a huge issue, but, by taking the proper preventive steps and focusing on mental health from day one, we can better support our coworkers and ourselves to make this a sustainable career choice.

One of the key issues affecting veterinary professionals is the lack of adequate staffing. A staff that is stretched too thin experiences a substantial amount of stress—and even dread—when it comes to handling the workday. Take a load off your team’s shoulders by leaning on technology to streamline your workflows and boost efficiency. 

The Vet2Pet platform can be like an extension of your team, but this team member can work around the clock without experiencing stress or burnout. Schedule your Vet2Pet demo to learn how you can remove some of the burden from your team.

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