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As a practice owner, your staff, and their wellbeing, weigh heavily on your mind. And with an uptick in veterinary burnout and mental health concerns, it can be hard to know how to help.
Thankfully, there are some tangible ways to support your veterinary team.
Eye-Opening Veterinary Mental Health Statistics in the Veterinary Profession
The best place to start is with awareness. Knowing that vets are more likely than the general population to experience burnout, compassion fatigue, and even suicidal ideation allows you to be proactive in providing mental health resources and encouraging your employees to take good care of themselves.
The veterinary community has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession: one out of six veterinarians has considered suicide, and those in animal medicine are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of suicide than the general population. Even more, male veterinarians are 1.6 times more likely to die by suicide, and female veterinarians are 2.4 times more likely.
Those are sobering statistics that indicate a true mental health crisis. And with the increase in workload during the pandemic, caring for the mental health of veterinarians and the team they work with needs to be a top priority for the vet industry as a whole.
The Different Types of Veterinary Mental Health Issues
While mental health issues can present in a myriad of ways, two types are most common among veterinarians: burnout and compassion fatigue.
Burnout is when one experiences sustained exhaustion from long hours at work. This typically manifests as increased cynicism and decreased productivity, though, of course, it can look different for each person. Too often, we are unaware of our burnout until it becomes unmanageable.
Compassion fatigue can present itself similarly to burnout, but it is more nuanced. While burnout can occur in anyone who is overworked, compassion fatigue is specific to those who work in a caregiving role.
Compassion fatigue results when a caregiver’s emotional empathy is overused. Those called to serve others tend to take on the patient’s burdens and hurts, which is beautiful. But when it isn’t managed properly, and the caregiver takes on too much, over time, their ability to feel empathy erodes and starts to affect their life beyond work. This is compassion fatigue.
Impact of Poor Well-Being on Your Veterinary Practice
Ask any veterinarian, and they can name a colleague who has struggled with burnout, compassion fatigue, and even suicidal ideation. Many know colleagues and veterinary students who have died by suicide. This type of mental health strain takes a severe toll on you and your practice.
It affects camaraderie among team members, relationships with patients, and the ability of DVMs to provide quality care. Many are leaving the profession altogether to find more sustainable careers, causing a shortage of qualified veterinarians and an even more significant strain on those still in the field.
Mental health is a sneaky issue—it’s difficult to understand just how deeply rooted and complex it is, let alone all the ways it can affect your practice. It is critical to create a culture that values health and promotes a strong work-life balance among veterinary professionals.
10 Helpful Tips for Managing and Improving Mental Health for Veterinarians
Assess Your Wellbeing
Mental illness is tricky, and our struggles often overtake us before we even realize we’re not doing so well. As one who is at greater risk, be wise and assess yourself regularly. Check in with yourself—how is your work-life balance? How is your stress level? Be gentle with yourself, build in breaks to make work sustainable, and be honest when it’s becoming unmanageable.
Reach Out for Help
Connecting with others in the industry can be incredibly empowering. One veterinarian almost quit the industry, thinking she wasn’t cut out for it. But after connecting with others, she realized the culture at her specific hospital was the issue. After switching jobs to a clinic that valued work-life balance, she found her groove again.
Family members and trained healthcare professionals can provide needed support as well.
Value Your Employees
As the practice owner, your words of affirmation and appreciation go a long way in bolstering your employees. Offer consolation and encouragement when a veterinarian has interacted with a particularly challenging pet owner. Support veterinary technicians and assistants as they learn to navigate the moral dilemmas of animal care. Value your employees’ unique gifts and perspectives to the clinic. And make sure they know it.
No one wants a leader who only sees sunshine and rainbows. But it is vital to create a culture of positivity, even amid significant challenges. How can you embrace joy together as a clinic? How can you reframe the obstacles? Lead from a place grounded in the veterinary industry’s beautiful, meaningful work and approach each issue with a positive perspective.
Surround Yourself With Uplifting People
One of the most prominent signs of burnout is cynicism. And cynicism in the workplace is a deadly wildfire—it spreads quickly and consumes all in its path. While it’s not helpful to turn a blind eye or sweep issues under the rug, ruminating on problems is also not beneficial.
Be mindful of who you surround yourself with. Have you fallen in with the crowd at work that loves to pick every decision apart and complain? Consider switching up your friends and finding those that discuss things other than the latest workplace drama.
As the manager, when you notice an employee is particularly cynical, work to address the core of the issue. Provide support for the person, give them some extra time off, and work to solve problems.
Remind yourself regularly of the good you are achieving and the difference you are making. While there are plenty of pain points in the industry, there are also plenty of successes. Working in the veterinary industry is a worthwhile and meaningful career, and finding fulfillment in your work is crucial in bolstering your quality of life.
Take Care of Your Mind and Body
Sometimes the best thing we can do for our mental health is to take care of our physical health. Go for a walk, drink water, eat a nutritious meal, get a good night’s sleep, brush your teeth. Scatter moments of self-care throughout the day and watch them shift your mindset.
There is no denying that working in an animal hospital is stressful. Hours are long, patients are sick, and pet owners are anxious. It is a lot to manage. Make it a habit to manage and release stress—and encourage your employees to do the same. Whether you find breathing exercises, journaling, or physical exercise to be the most effective, do so regularly.
Practice Forgiveness and Gratitude
We do not talk about forgiveness enough. As a veterinarian, you are on the receiving end of a number of people’s anger and fear. It is critical, then, to release your grieving patients and choose forgiveness and gratitude.
Change Up Your Routine
We all get bogged down in the mundane of the everyday. Notice when you need a bit of spontaneity and switch things up. Take the scenic route home, try a new recipe, or take a painting class. Sometimes all we need is a little extra something to look forward to in the week.
While all of these are effective tools for managing stress, nothing can replace established mental health services. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) provides great resources that address a number of health problems many veterinarians face today. Not One More Vet is a critical organization working to promote health and end death by suicide among vets. And always, there is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988).
Psychological distress, burnout, and compassion fatigue are serious issues. Seek the help you need today and prioritize your mental and physical wellbeing. Nothing is more important than that.