Veterinary professionals endure long work hours, often with extra responsibilities due to staff shortages and stress from tough cases and client complaints. These are just a few of the stressors veterinarians and other veterinary staff face on a near-daily basis that can lead to physical effects, emotional exhaustion, and mental hardship.
Vet burnout might feel isolating, but it also affects everyone around you, including your friends, family, clients, and patients. High-level burnout can severely impact your performance at work, potentially damaging patient outcomes and causing you to feel overwhelmed by perceived failure.
Despite entering the veterinary field to help animals and pet parents, burnout can cause a loss of purpose and satisfaction in your vocation. To protect your physical and mental health and your ability to effectively help others, it’s essential that you remember to take care of yourself as well as your patients.
Learn about vet tech burnout in this article, including how it impacts the veterinary medicine industry and your well-being, what causes it, and how to prevent it for yourself and your veterinary team.
Veterinarian Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue vs. Depression
When complicated emotions are swirling around your head, and you’re constantly feeling fatigued, it can be a challenge to determine whether what you’re experiencing is burnout, compassion fatigue, or depression. Knowing the difference between these conditions can help put you on the right track to getting better, so let’s look at the general definition of each:
- Burnout. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an occupational phenomenon with three main characteristics, including low energy or exhaustion, mental distancing or feelings of cynicism related to your job, and reduced professional effectiveness.
- Compassion fatigue. While similar to burnout, compassion fatigue specifically refers to feelings of exhaustion, apathy, and isolation related to being a caregiver for patients experiencing severe stress or trauma. Typically, healthcare providers develop this type of fatigue because they take on the suffering of their patients, which wears down their ability to empathize with them.
- Depression. While burnout and compassion fatigue are typically related to occupations, depression is a clinical illness that causes sadness, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, appetite changes, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness.
One of the major differences between burnout, compassion fatigue, and depression is that you can alleviate the first two by taking time off and committing to self-care. Depression, on the other hand, usually requires treatment with medication and therapy from mental health professionals. With that being said, talking to therapists or counselors benefits all three of these conditions.
The Impact of Burnout on the Veterinary Industry
According to the Cornell Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship, burnout costs the veterinary industry two billion dollars every year. That startlingly high amount takes into account both veterinarians and technicians. The author of the study admits that it’s a conservative estimate, so the true cost may be even higher.
The calculations came from determining the revenue the staff members bring in and the amount a clinic loses when they quit their jobs. While burnout was an issue before the coronavirus pandemic, it became worse afterward.
Like many businesses and healthcare organizations, vet clinics struggled with The Great Resignation when workers left their jobs en masse to look for positions with better working conditions. Staff shortages put increased pressure on the remaining team members, exacerbating issues that lead to burnout.
Many veterinarians and their staff are considering a career change; in our 2022 State of Veterinary Staffing ebook, we found that, when asked if they considered switching career paths, 21% of respondents chose “strongly agree” and 24% selected “agree.” (Download the ebook for free for more insights and tips on handling the veterinary staffing crisis).
Effects of Veterinary Burnout on Personal and Professional Wellbeing
Burnout doesn’t stay at the office when you go home; the exhaustion, cognitive issues, and stress follow you wherever you go. Burnout puts you at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that veterinarians and veterinary technicians have a greater suicide risk than the general US population. Suicide is 1.6 times more likely for male veterinarians and 2.4 times more likely for female veterinarians.
When it comes to work, you might miss more days, make more medical errors, or decide to quit or retire early. Your performance takes a hit, and you might try to compensate by pushing yourself harder, working overtime, and taking on additional patients.
In your personal life, burnout can cause you to drink more alcohol or take other addictive substances that lead to abuse. You could also have trouble sleeping and suffer health issues like digestion problems and headaches.
What Causes Veterinary Burnout and Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue happens when a caregiver takes their patients’ stress and trauma onto themselves. Over time, the burden becomes too heavy, taking all the caregiver’s energy and causing them to be unable to fully sympathize with their patients any longer.
The causes of burnout are also related to stress but typically involve multiple factors that compound each other and result in a significant amount of pressure on the provider. In the case of veterinarians, causes of burnout include these stress-inducing issues:
- Excessive workload
- Performing euthanasia
- High educational debt
- Complaints from pet owners
- Unhealthy work environment
Constant exposure to these situations eventually leads to burnout. According to a survey, some groups are more susceptible to burnout than others, including recent veterinary science graduates, vets with significant school debt, vets who work with cats and dogs at a general practice, private practice veterinarians, and female veterinarians.
If you’ve noticed yourself feeling more stressed or tired lately, you can take a self-assessment to try to determine your level of burnout from an objective standpoint, such as the ProQOL (professional quality of life) test from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
If you or your staff are preparing for a tough client conversation about euthanasia, we want to help. Watch our free webinar here on handling euthanasia calls with empathy and grace.
How To Recognize Veterinary Burnout: Signs and Symptoms
The people who pursue careers in veterinary medicine tend to be driven, empathetic caregivers. Having empathy and compassion makes you a great veterinarian or veterinary technician, but these traits can make you vulnerable to forming unhealthy mindsets and habits.
Someone who cares deeply about providing outstanding veterinary care probably feels a strong sense of failure, shame, and frustration when facing poor patient outcomes, client complaints, and particularly stressful cases. They might work even harder to make up for failures or lack of self-confidence.
If this sounds like you, you might be prone to burnout. Take a look at these signs and symptoms of burnout so you know what to look for in yourself or others close to you:
- Physical symptoms: tiredness, lack of sleep, headaches, body aches, stomach issues, digestive problems
- Mental symptoms: detachment, cynicism, lack of interest, loss of purpose, negative image of self or others, difficulty concentrating
- Emotional symptoms: frustration, irritability, sadness, hopelessness, anger, guilt, helplessness
If you have to drag yourself to work every day and lack the energy to be productive or you don’t get satisfaction even from your successes, you might be burned out. Signs of burnout can be subtle or practically nonexistent until the condition has severely progressed.
How To Prevent Veterinarian Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
Burnout in veterinary medicine tends to happen when you forget to take care of yourself because you’ve been too busy trying to take care of animals. If you want to prevent burnout and maintain a healthy relationship with your veterinary profession, you need to remember to recognize and act on your own needs and wants.
However, individual employees aren’t the only people who can take steps to address burnout. Veterinary practice owners should have strategies for preventing burnout, such as having meetings to discuss difficult cases and giving staff the space to express their feelings and concerns about work.
Practice owners need to improve their communication about how to deal with workplace stressors and promote employee well-being with benefits like plenty of vacation days and access to mental health services. By finding healthy ways to deal with the vet clinic environment, you can help keep your staff members safe from burnout and compassion fatigue.
Since burnout is an occupational condition, it makes sense that systemic change is necessary to combat the issue. Instead of relying on veterinarians and other vet staff to handle their own stress while dealing with unreasonably high expectations, practice owners should work to provide support and prevent the issues that cause burnout.
Self-care and Stress Management
When you’re overworked and exhausted, self-care goes by the wayside. If you have a stressful job, it’s vital to ensure you’re meeting all your basic needs plus doing the things that make you happy.
You should get enough sleep, exercise often, and eat nutritious meals, and you should make time to see your friends and family, play video games, read, or do the things you enjoy. If you need some extra relaxation because of difficulties at work, try learning how to meditate, do yoga, or practice mindfulness.
According to the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, 51% of participants with burnout didn’t have a healthy way of dealing with stress.
When working in a veterinary clinic, you’ll experience a lot of hectic situations that are out of your control, but you do have control over how you respond. In high-stress situations, focusing on your senses and the surroundings can help distract yourself from negative thoughts and emotions.
You can try a couple of mindfulness techniques to calm yourself down:
- The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique: Take a deep breath and let it out slowly while describing to yourself five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one positive thought.
- The STOP method: “STOP” is an acronym to remember “Stop what you’re doing, Take a deep breath, Observe your emotions and surroundings, and Proceed with your response.”
Staff Workload and Work-life Balance
A healthy work-life balance is essential for avoiding burnout. You need to set clear boundaries between work and your personal life, meaning you should try to leave the issues you have at work behind when you go home. Make sure you take breaks and schedule time off to give yourself time to rest.
If you’re a practice manager or owner, you can support work-life balance by ensuring that your staff has reasonable workloads and time off. If you notice one of the veterinary nurses or vet techs are unusually stressed, encourage them to use vacation time and remind them you’re available to talk.
As a practice owner, increasing the efficiency of your veterinary clinic is another way you can lighten your staff’s workload-related stress. With some veterinary practice software, you can automate most of the time-consuming practical tasks your staff deals with, such as scheduling, appointment reminders, and client forms.
Having someone to talk to when you’re struggling at work can be immensely helpful, especially when it’s someone who has experience with the same issues. You can try discussing burnout with your mentors or colleagues who could provide helpful tips for handling the stress in your profession.
You can also talk to your friends and family or see a mental health professional for support. You should also let your practice owner or manager know about your struggles so you can find solutions and work on adopting processes that promote positive psychology.
As the owner or chief veterinary officer, you shouldn’t wait for your employees to approach you about burnout. You can be proactive by knowing the signs of burnout and checking in with your staff members periodically. Even those who seem fine might be approaching their stress limit, and you won’t know they’re struggling unless you ask.
While a veterinary career can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be demanding and stressful. Veterinarians and veterinary staff are exposed to many challenges and pressures that can affect their physical and mental health. Burnout, compassion fatigue, and depression are common conditions that can impair their well-being and performance.
To prevent and address this in your veterinary clinic, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms, seek professional help when needed, and practice self-care strategies such as setting boundaries, taking breaks, finding support, and engaging in hobbies. By taking care of yourself and your staff, you can also take better care of your patients and clients.