How to prevent and handle staff burnout at Veterinary practices

Updated: November 2023


Working as a veterinary practitioner is not always an easy task. One has to face multiple challenges and go through various kinds of stress for career permanence and well being. These stresses include strong emotions that could be attributable to multiple factors during daily activities. The state of such strong emotional stress and burnout is a serious problem that is faced by veterinary staff. As defined by Melinda Smith and team, burnout is an state caused by prolonged stress in which one feels emotionally, mentally and physically drained. If the stress continues, one begins to lose interest in everyday activities too.

Burnout: A serious problem

The rate of clinician burnout is rapidly increasing among the those working in veterinary medicine, especially during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. These increased levels of burnout are negatively affecting personal and professional, thereby hampering them to provide valuable care to the animals and their owners. Indeed, 85% of American Veterinary Medical Association convention attendees reported stress and burnout to be the most important wellness issues affecting the veterinary community.

DVM360 survey conducted in 2015 focused on the question “What is your biggest stress at your job/workplace?” Only 1% of veterinarians answered euthanasia and 5% mentioned critical patients. The largest groups answered time management issues (23%) and difficult clients (21%). Another demographic study was conducted by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) in 2016. The results showed #1 reason why veterinary professionals leave the industry is insufficient pay. Other hurdles include lack of respect from the employer (20%), burnout (14%), lack of benefits, lack of respect for profession and compassion fatigue.

Working in veterinary practices, the stress may be either of performing a difficult surgery, being unable to treat animals due owner’s financial constraints, or euthanizing a beloved animal companion. Most clients consider their pets to be family members and are emotionally involved having high expectations for their pets’ emotional and medical needs to be met. It’s not an easy job handling such clients. For veterinary professionals to be responsive and engaging to their clients, it is imperative to have strong and stable emotions, as well as good communication skills. These kinds of scenarios of extreme and continual exposure to traumatic events are a potential risk factor provoking employee burnout. The practice morale and the care for patients suffer when staff are burned out.

When these situations persist, it often leads to the employee(s) leaving the profession altogether. However, these kinds of stresses could be nullified or prevented by taking a few steps. Among other various issues, high levels of student debt for graduating veterinarians is a real issue as the tuition fees are raising constantly. Each year, there is an average increase of about  $4500 in tuition fees whereas salaries increase by only about $700/year.

Once hired, many staff members aren’t always recognized for their dedication and heavy workloads. In spite of giving their valuable services and time to the profession they still face lack of recognition. This continuous pressure can lead burnout emotionally and mentally, as well as some tension with their employers.

So What Could be The Way Out?

Firstly, it’s important to learn and practice self-care, mental well-being, and resiliency. However, we also need to recognize and concentrate upon the real problems our industry is facing. It’s the need of the hour to be vigilant for shrinking salaries in response of growing industry. College graduates also need to be taught about business and customer service skills.

Veterinarians need to be encouraged and supported during their tenure. Attempts should be made at a governmental level to support higher education and decrease escalating tuition costs.  The devastating debt issues need to be brought more into focused. We need to talk about what systems work and what don’t.

The most important step in lessening employee burnout is knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms then have an idea about the factors behind that state. Feelings of detachment, insecurity, failure of achievement, emotional as well as physical exhaustion are various burnout conditions which may lead to lack of sleep, loss of appetite, anxiety and depression. Key factors behind these situations may include problems dealing with clients and colleagues. Struggles with managing stress in workplace, distress about job security, euthanizing animals on a regular basis, are also major causes, according to The American Institute of Stress.

In the current scenario when the number of vet hospitals is growing and more are offering 24 hour services, veterinary practices can be extremely hectic. Thus practitioners and nurses have to give extra time on a regular basis leading to the imbalance of work and personal time. Therefore sometimes taking a break for a day or two can lighten up the burden. Improving your nutrition, physical activity, and sleeping habits will also help a lot. By sticking to a regular 8 hour sleep schedule and eating healthy meals throughout the day, your body will be nourished and ready to handle stresses.

In the case of physical and emotional stress/burnout situation, the most important thing is to talk with your hospital lead and/or boss. By being open and having conversations, he or she can make adjustments, depending upon the contributing factors which could lessen the burden ultimately.

Adaptive coping strategies is a key component of a health promotion strategy. Developing productive ways in coping up with stress like walking, jogging, cardiovascular exercise, and talking to friends will help a lot at work and in other areas of life. Continuous development workshops could be provided by organizations to empower the staff for developing resilience and emotional stability in order to keep burnout situation at bay.

Approaches as a team

Many veterinarians try to fix problems all alone. They micro-manage the issues, without even understanding the power of a team. Unluckily this results in a team that is full of unsupported people. Conversely, when a team approach is taken as an initiative, new and unique ideas are brought to the table. The stress is divided and isn’t fully born by a certain individual.

Make the team members more powerful in their own area of jurisdiction and expertise. The team should be allowed to work within set limits. The practice of making every decision alone may be substituted by making team leaders and relying upon them. Other members should avoid of handling every situation alone but there should be a practice of advising their team members.

Apart from these initiatives, vet leads should take steps to increase the wages for the staff working under, show appreciation to their work and train them to cope up with such situations.

The patients also suffer in burnout situation along with the veterinary practitioners and team. A number of cases have compelled the veterinarians to leave the profession entirely. However, with the right planning, one can avoid falling victim to these physical and mental stresses.

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Updated: November 2023