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We all know those days—when we’re at the end of our rope, tired of it all, and just. need. A. Break. Burnout is a common experience across all industries, but it’s been particularly prevalent in the veterinary profession of late. As a practice owner, fostering a healthy and safe work environment for your employees is critical. So, how do you prevent burnout?
A Definition of Veterinary Burnout
Before knowing what to do to relieve burnout, we first must understand it. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Another way to think about it is emotional exhaustion which leads to an increase in cynicism and a decrease in productivity. We are so fatigued that we no longer enjoy our work, nor can we complete it well.
The trickiest part is that we often don’t recognize we’re burning out until we’re already past the preventative stage and fully, well, burnt out. Our symptoms often feel manageable until they’re not—and when they’re not, they’re really not.
Examining the Causes of Veterinary Burnout
A veterinarian’s every day is an emotional rollercoaster. A vet must bounce from putting down a family’s beloved companion animal due to cancer to the joyful room of welcoming a new puppy to breaking the news that a woman’s cat has diabetes. Add to that twelve-hour days, debt from veterinary school, and little work-life balance, and it’s little wonder why so many in the veterinary field are struggling to maintain a healthy professional quality of life.
We want to think there is a simple reset button, like taking a walk during lunch or an extra week of vacation. But burnout is a complicated and nuanced syndrome that needs time to be understood, healed, and rewired.
Job Burnout and Stress
A Closer Look at Job Burnout and Stress in Veterinarians
A recent Merck Animal Health (MAH) study found that burnout occurs more in younger veterinarians than older. One reason is that younger vets are saddled with student debt, which will take many of them their entire careers to pay off. Another is that DVMs and practice owners have more autonomy and can control their hours and availability. Plus, their experience and higher salaries lend to greater job satisfaction.
Effects of Vet Burnout on Private Practice Ownership
That is not to say, however, that owners do not experience burnout—or carry the weight of how to support their exhausted team members. For change to happen, it is critical that awareness of burnout, its causes, and its symptoms are deeply understood from the top down.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Job Burnout and Stress in Veterinarians
The common signs of burnout can be hard to spot because, in some ways, they are deeply valued in our society. We lament how busy and tired we are—but often as a badge of success and importance. We complain about our bosses—to prove that we would do it better. And we respond to our feelings of failure by throwing ourselves more into our work to show that we are capable.
But it is these very signs—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of accomplishment—that are the most common symptoms of burnout.
This is the most common and easiest to spot. If you find yourself struggling to wake up in the morning or feeling utterly exhausted during work hours, recognize it as burnout. Take a break and seek help from a mental health professional.
We often become overly critical and cynical when we feel burnt out. Take note if you find yourself complaining more often than usual.
Lack of accomplishment
Burnout directly affects our productivity. We are too physically and emotionally tired to accomplish tasks, be they big or small. It might be tempting to throw yourself further into work when struggling to perform, but taking a break and coming back with a fresh perspective is more effective.
Martyrdom or self-sacrifice
While self-sacrifice is a noble value for most caregivers, it can become unhealthy if practiced too often. Be mindful if you or a colleague start to slip into a martyrdom mindset. If you’re not careful, it will turn into compassion fatigue.
When we become burnt out, everything feels overwhelming. This often causes us to isolate ourselves from others. But this only piles loneliness onto our already-existing stressors.
Noticeable changes in health
Beyond exhaustion, burnout can manifest as insomnia, digestive issues, headaches, and the like. Take regular stock of your physical health and address the issues at their core.
Burnout and mental health struggles, in general, are often easier to spot in others than in ourselves. Allow trusted friends, family members, and coworkers to gently warn you when you seem more exhausted or cynical than usual.
The Staggering Economic Costs of Vet Burnout
While we all believe each employee’s mental health is vital in making the workplace a strong and thriving community, it often requires hard numbers before businesses decide to change. To encourage real change, the Cornell Center for Vet Business and Entrepreneurship set out to find the data and discovered that burnout among veterinarians costs the industry $2 billion a year.
Let that sink in: $2 billion a year.
To calculate this, researchers added how many hours each veterinarian worked, how many dollars the vet brought into the clinic, the clinic’s turnover rate, and other similar measurements. The conservative estimate was that burnout costs clinics anywhere from $25K to $75K per employee. But the more realistic estimate is that burnout costs between two-thirds and three-quarters of an employee’s salary.
The economic reasons to change industry culture and encourage more sustainable lifestyles are undeniable. So how do we make that happen?
Strategies to Reduce Job Burnout and Stress Within Yourself
The first step in cultivating a culture of health is to assess our own stress-management skills. Regularly evaluating your state of emotions will help identify burnout signs and symptoms before they take root—and make you more able to see them in others with compassion.
Reflection Questions for Managing Stress
Check in with yourself regularly with these helpful questions:
- Are you turning to harmful coping mechanisms to avoid stress? This can manifest as detachment, avoidance, cynicism, lack of energy and motivation, or inability to concentrate.
- How is your health? Have you had any changes in your energy, bodily pains, substance abuse, or bowel problems? Often our stress manifests in our physical bodies.
- How is your overall workplace conduct? Are you getting more easily irritated with your colleagues, patients, or clients?
Personal Strategies for Managing Stress
Of course, we all go through waves of dissatisfaction with our jobs. But if you notice significant or sustained changes, utilize the following strategies.
- Talk with a family member or friend
- Speak with a professional therapist
- Include at least one relaxing activity in your everyday
- Take care to eat well, exercise regularly, and get good sleep
- Set and maintain work-life boundaries
- Practice mindfulness and gratitude
Each of these may seem simple but can be revolutionary when put into daily practice.
Strategies to Reduce Job Burnout and Stress Within Your Practice
By modeling caring for your mental health as the practice owner, you will start to shift your practice culture. But there are some more systemic ways you can bring about change.
Lessen the workload
Consider actually reducing working hours and improving the working environment at your clinic.
Set clear boundaries
Employees should feel free to take lunch breaks, regular vacations, and leave work at a reasonable hour.
Ensure roles and expectations are clear
When employees know what is expected of them—and what isn’t—they are protected from a significant amount of unnecessary stress. When communication is clear, the workplace becomes psychologically safe.
Always advocate for a healthy work environment
Be present with your employees and support them as they face the trials of their days.
This cannot be stated enough. Focus on your self-care and seek professional help when needed.
Managers and practice owners can make a more significant difference in alleviating burnout in their organization than individuals can do on their own. Proactively bolstering your wellness—and that of your veterinary staff—matters.
For more resources, check out the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) mental health webinars and free online assessment. Not One More Vet (NOMV) also provides exceptional support for those in the veterinary profession. And always, there is the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988).
What steps can you take to relieve burnout in your veterinary community today—and prevent it before it even takes over?