The Perils of Veterinary Burnout
There’s no way around it — as rewarding as taking care of animals can be, veterinary medicine is naturally an emotionally exhausting choice of career. Stringent pet owner demands coupled with expectations from colleagues and self-induced pressure to perform can lead to mounting stress for professionals if not properly taken care of. Add to that the compassion fatigue of witnessing repeated trauma (injury, illness, death), and you’ve got a potent recipe for veterinary burnout.
So how can you take proactive steps early on to help you battle burnout in the long run? From therapy and support groups to working under the right practice owners and within a great company culture, there are myriad options for robust support. Read on to explore the options for individualized veterinary support.
Know the Symptoms
Combating veterinary burnout first starts with recognizing it while it’s happening — and before it reaches a critical point. Symptoms of stress include physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual aspects. Prolonged stress can affect every area of your life, so it’s important to get out ahead of it.
If you constantly feel tired, sleeping no longer makes you feel rested, and/or you get sick much more easily, you may be experiencing the physical effects of burnout. These may also include chronic aches and pains or flare-ups of past physical problems, extreme or immediate weight fluctuation, or sexual disinterest.
Listen to your coworkers for insights into your emotional health. This may include feeling and acting depressed, overly angry, or irritated, and crying much more easily, with small day-to-day issues causing more upset than usual.
You may also feel preoccupied, which can affect your short-term memory, and start to think of situations in extremes, leading to lowered ability to solve problems. Additionally, you might start to feel paranoid about your relationships with others and reject help when you most need it. Consistently showing up late to work, not showing up at all, and acting with decreased professionalism are some more obvious signs to watch out for. These are all great things for coworkers and superiors to keep an eye out for — and for you to be mindful of as well with those you work with.
Finally, prolonged, extreme stress can even affect your core beliefs and values, as well as how you view the world in general. You may think cynically about your spirituality, and not be able to as easily find meaning in your life and the things that happen in it. In extreme cases, you may feel empty and have a hard time remembering the good moments.
If you are experiencing any of these more intense symptoms of burnout, please seek help. The AVMA provides resources tailored to veterinarians trying to deal with the extreme stress of the job, and instructs those who feel as if they’re in crisis to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Crisis Chat or call 1-800-273-8255 immediately.
Build Healthy Habits
One way to improve your resilience in the face of stress and veterinary burnout is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and have outlets for emotional energy outside of work. Keeping close contact with friends, family, and people that support you without adding to your work stress is essential. Connecting with colleagues who understand your perspective is also a great way to get some advice, blow off steam, and feel supported and understood.
Your physical health is also affected by stress and emotional fatigue. Stress not only contributes to poor mental health, but it also has physical side effects that create a negative cycle, leading you closer to burnout. That’s why taking care of yourself physically is such an important piece to the puzzle of feeling fulfilled and avoiding burnout. Eating healthily and regularly, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and not overusing alcohol, nicotine, drugs, or caffeine are all parts of keeping your physical health intact.
Taking care of yourself on your own time also extends beyond the physical — taking time to be alone with yourself in order to process and decompress is also important. Activities like meditation or journaling can help you to process repeated trauma from working with sick and injured animals and stay in tune with your emotional health. Practicing your own spiritual beliefs or other meaningful, repetitive practices can also help you to listen to yourself more, understand when you’re starting to fall into burnout, and build up a resistance against it.
Work With a Supportive Team
At VetEvolve’s network of practices, we’ve often found that a person’s personal success depends heavily on the environment they’re working in, and the support that surrounds them. Since less experienced veterinarians report higher levels of stress than more experienced ones, it’s very important to have onboarding procedures in place that help a new veterinarian get off to a good start.
When it comes to working at a practice, too often younger veterinarians are thrown to the wolves, and feel overwhelmed by the volume of work and lack of help they’re experiencing. At VetEvolve, our Chief People Officer, Jessica Decesare, creates customized onboarding and training plans in tandem with veterinarians that directly address their personal strengths, weaknesses, and concerns to help them feel confident in their position. You can read more about Jessica’s role and how it contributes to VetEvolve’s people-first focus here.
Working with a team that openly addresses the stresses of the job and clearly prioritizes mental health is critical for your long-term success as a veterinarian. That’s why VetEvolve is putting on events like ‘Lose the Stress’ Zoom classes (a mix of energy medicine/qigong/tai chi/tapping— no yoga pants required) and a series of workshops on ‘Becoming a Beterinarian’ to help our veterinarians deal with their daily stress and connect with one another.
It helps immensely to work with other professionals that make you feel cared for and understood, and prioritize your own personal and professional goals for the betterment of the entire organization. At VetEvolve, it’s standard practice for our leaders to check in with veterinarians. When our supervisors hear a practice is going through a particularly busy or stressful time, they put consistent meetings in place with those who are new and/or struggling in order to create better communication channels and resolve issues proactively. And if you’re working in the wrong environment for your needs, VetEvolve leadership will work with you and provide options for improving the situation, and potentially even moving to another practice.
Reach out to VetEvolve to discuss options for a supported, fulfilling career in veterinary medicine today.