As veterinarians and veterinary staff, we face significant challenges daily. Recent years have brought higher patient volume, lower staff retention and ever-evolving safety practices to protect pet owners and our teams providing care. At the same time, we strive to maintain the same high level of care as if we had all the necessary resources and then some.
Along with these compounded changes come heightened stress levels, uncertainty and discouragement. If these feelings are left unaddressed and ignored, they can spiral into physical and mental health risks – including burnout.
What is veterinary burnout?
Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as a “state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Burnout in any profession stems from a lack of control, which can manifest into frustration, anger and exhaustion before burgeoning into full-blown burnout affecting your daily responsibilities and possibly your career.
In veterinary medicine, long hours, lack of resources, hospital environment and consistent exposure to trauma can contribute to veterinary burnout. It doesn’t matter if you work as a veterinarian, vet tech or receptionist; we all care deeply for our patients and clients, so we are all susceptible to burnout and other mental health issues.
Burnout vs. compassion fatigue.
Many veterinarians and veterinary staff also experience compassion fatigue, which is similar to burnout but not synonymous.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states that compassion fatigue occurs when medical personnel or a caregiver experiences empathy for an ill or dying patient, causing the caregiver to “take on the burden” themselves. This burden slowly gets heavier and heavier until it becomes difficult to empathize or express compassion to patients in distress. The act of expressing compassion day after day becomes exhausting.
Burnout and compassion fatigue are highly prevalent in veterinary medicine, with the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzing their effects. Compassion fatigue symptoms typically include apathy, isolation, nightmares and compulsive behaviors. And on top of everything else, we tend to feel guilty for experiencing those emotions or behaviors.
On the other hand, Mayo Clinic indicates that burnout can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health, leading to insomnia, substance abuse, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other significant symptoms.
What are the burnout rates for veterinarians?
In a 2022 Veterinarian Wellbeing Study conducted by Merck Animal Health and AVMA, research showed that veterinarians and veterinary staff both experienced high levels of burnout. Specifically, 30.5% of veterinarians and 49.6% of veterinary staff reported experiencing high levels of burnout in 2021.
Is it normal to feel burned out in the veterinary field?
In short – yes, it is common to feel burned out in the veterinary field. And while 9.7% of veterinary doctors report feeling severe psychological distress, 18.1% of veterinary staff feel the same way – nearly double that of veterinarians.
However, the Veterinarian Wellbeing Study also showed that having healthy outlets for stress greatly reduces the chance of experiencing burnout. Over half of the study participants who were not distressed reported that they have a healthy method for dealing with stress in their lives, while 51% of the highly distressed participants said they did not.
What are the warning signs of veterinary burnout?
While the timeline and sequence vary, people tend to experience 12 distinct phases of burnout, as outlined by dvm360:
- The compulsion to prove themselves
- Working harder
- Neglecting their needs
- Displacement of conflicts
- Revision of values
- Denial of emerging problems
- Obvious behavior changes
- Inner emptiness
- Burnout syndrome
The most important takeaway is this: if you recognize any of these phases in yourself, whether the first or the last, it’s never too late to reach out for help. Whether you feel most comfortable with a therapist, counselor or other support services, veterinary burnout is treatable with the proper mental health care.
How to avoid burnout in veterinary medicine.
In addition to seeking professional care, there are also many steps we can take to avoid veterinary burnout and curb the effects before they overwhelm us completely:
1. Remember your “why.”
Remind yourself why you love veterinary medicine and remember what drew you to this career path. Working with animals can be incredibly difficult at times, but we all recognize that it’s also extremely rewarding. Not only do we get to make a tangible, profound impact on the lives of pets and their owners, but our days are full of tail wags, purrs and furry snuggles from happy patients.
Your work means the world to pets and owners alike, so take a moment to reflect on everything you’ve accomplished. You deserve to be proud of yourself!
2. Focus on what you can control.
An average day can hold many chaotic moments in the veterinary field. You may not have control over your environment, but you do have control over your response. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed or struggling to remain in control, practice these techniques:
Grounding technique: 5-4-3-2-1.
First, take a deep breath through your nose and let it out slowly through your mouth. Then, describe the following in your mind:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One positive thing about yourself
It will take some practice, but this technique will help calm your mind so you can respond to a critical moment in a positive and professional way.
The STOP method.
Similar to the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, the STOP method will help you regain control of your thoughts and actions when you feel overwhelmed.
S – Stop what you’re doing.
T – Take a deep breath.
O – Observe what’s going on around you and acknowledge how you’re feeling at that moment.
P – Proceed with your response to the situation.
While these methods may seem like minor changes, they are small but mighty! Focusing on your senses and surroundings distracts your mind from negative thoughts and decreases the intensity of your emotions. The next time you feel the icy fingers of panic or extreme stress, try these techniques to regain control and keep your mind clear to maintain the best level of care for your patients.
3. Make time for things that bring you comfort.
You spend your whole day giving comfort and compassion to others, so be intentional about creating comfort in your home life. Perhaps you enjoy listening to podcasts, spending time with friends or belting out your favorite songs in the car. Make time for things that make you feel alive and refreshed.
We all need reminders to take breaks when they’re needed and use PTO to truly rest and do things that fill our cups. BluePearl also offers holiday time and flexible scheduling to allow our Associates plenty of time to relax and take care of themselves. Remember that your needs are just as valid as the needs of your patients.
4. Practice gratitude.
Gratitude is not a warm emotion. It’s an intentional practice that requires a conscious effort.
To practice gratitude, hang onto the moments that bring you joy. Use your commute home to reflect on everything that went right during your day instead of fixating on one thing that went wrong. Finally, write down three things that made you smile, whether they happened at work or at home.
Small, intentional steps will help you build a habit of gratitude that transforms your mindset.
5. Don’t bring the work home.
Veterinary medicine is a profoundly personal and emotional vocation. So while it may be hard to do so, leaving your day at the clinic can help you avoid burnout. You don’t need to bring the heavy stuff home with you!
Before leaving the office, envision everything you did during your workday. Picture all the interactions you had and the appointments you handled, both good and challenging. Put those memories and emotions into a “box” in your mind. Mentally close the box, lock it and leave it at your desk, cubby or door as you exit the building.
This mental exercise will help you overcome the hard days you go through, but it will also help you be more present in your home life. Since you left your “box” of difficult moments at work, you will have more space and emotional capacity to focus on your own well-being.
6. Ask for help.
We get to have many precious moments in veterinary medicine. However, we can also experience plenty of grueling days as well. If you find yourself regularly struggling, reach out for help. Talk to someone who can give you the guidance and counsel you need to process your emotions.
At BluePearl, we provide several employee wellness programs and support services to care for our Associates, including our wellness ambassador program, clinicians-in-training program and our recent partnership with Lyra Health.
With our Lyra Health partnership, BluePearl Associates and eligible family members can receive up to 12 mental health or coaching sessions per year. Lyra Health offers in-person and telehealth mental health services, so all Associates have access to the quality support services they deserve regardless of their schedules or locations.
Whether you feel the effects of veterinary burnout or want to take a proactive approach to avoid it, seeking professional mental health care is one of the best ways to help yourself.
Veterinary burnout is very real, but it is both avoidable and treatable through employee wellness programs, mental health coaching, counseling, compassionate hospital environments and other support services. If you feel the effects of burnout in your own life, you are not alone. There are trained professionals ready and willing to help you work through this challenging season.
BluePearl recognizes that burnout affects many people in the veterinary field. We are committed to providing resources and mental health benefits to our Associates to give back to the people who give so much of themselves to pets and owners every day. With our focus on supportive resources and benefits for our Associates, we are actively working to reduce burnout in veterinary medicine.