Veterinarians are burning out at an increasing rate. Many feel they lack the resources to deal with the high demands of their jobs. While many causes of the problem are systemic, there are ways to bolster your wellbeing. Physical exercise and regular sleep, in particular, help balance the emotional toll.
Why did you become a veterinarian? Maybe you love animals and wanted to do everything you can to help them in their hour of need. You might also enjoy problem-solving and want a challenging career.
But there are two sides to the coin – being a veterinarian can be hard. Excessive workloads, an imbalance between demands and capabilities to meet these demands, and a lack of a sense of control are all drivers of burnout in physicians. Research shows that you’ve likely experienced these negatives as well.
James Hewitt has studied human performance for almost two decades and has witnessed a rise in stress and burnout rates. Still, people’s goals have remained essentially the same: most of us want to feel energized and in control of our personal and professional lives. This requires some compromise. According to Hewitt, balancing our professional and personal lives can sometimes make us feel like we are making too many sacrifices.
“High job demands are not necessarily the main cause of the burnout crisis,” he says, “It’s the combination of high demands with a low sense of control; not feeling that we can influence or change what is happening around us, that creates the toxic burnout combination.”
Caring is a superpower, but it can also lead to fatigue
Caring deeply for pets and pet parents might be one of your reasons to be a veterinarian, but according to research, it may also be one of the most taxing aspects of the job. Veterinarians are at high risk of experiencing emotional or compassion fatigue1, or feeling drained because of accumulated stress in the workplace. This stems from dealing with the emotional burden of caring for sick and injured animals and the distraught pet parents.
“Emotional exhaustion can strain relationships and communication with the pet parent. Many pet parents see their companion animals as family members, which creates very high expectations concerning their emotional and medical needs”, says Hewitt.
He stresses that good communication is fundamental to building strong relationships with pet parents. However, it can be demanding if the veterinarian is already emotionally exhausted.
Another source of pressure for veterinarians is the lack of time. If you’re a veterinarian, you probably know first-hand how busy days at the clinic can be. One reason for the rush is that there are too few vets. In the US alone, there is an estimated shortage of 15,000 veterinarians by 20302. Veterinary school application rates are rising3, but the long training times mean it will take a while before supply issues can be resolved.
Start with sleep
The labor shortage is one of the many systemic causes of veterinary burnout. Some causes require a cultural change, like distressed pet parents being abusive towards their veterinarians4.
However, there are still many areas where we can empower veterinarians to take wellbeing into their own hands. The first step, says Hewitt, is to prioritize sleep,
“We often think about how stress interferes with our sleep, but not sleeping enough is ‘anxiogenic’ – it drives up our stress. If we’re not careful, we can get caught in a vicious cycle where stress interferes with sleep, which drives up stress even more. Improving sleep can help to break this cycle, but also provide a greater sense of perspective, to rebalance that demands-control relationship.”
Hewitt highlights the overwhelming evidence that we need at least seven hours of sleep per night and recommends the following three steps to improve your chances of achieving this:
1) Stop caffeine after midday: Even if you think you’re immune to the effects of caffeine, its long half-life means that it could still be disrupting your sleep. You’ve probably just gotten used to it. The evidence suggests that, even if you stop drinking coffee 6 hours before you go to bed, it could reduce your sleep time by more than 1 hour.
2) Pay attention to light – dark cycles: Light is the most potent signal for regulating your body clock. Unfortunately, many of us live in a continually dull environment. Bright light at the correct times, and contrast between light and dark, are crucial for maintaining a stable circadian rhythm. Get outside and get some bright, natural light each morning for at least 30 minutes. Later, try to limit your bright light exposure in the hours before you go to bed.
3) Try to go to sleep and wake up at a regular time: One of the most effective things you can do to improve your sleep is to go to bed and wake up at a regular time every day. Otherwise, you are constantly shifting your body clock, which is like living in a constant state of jetlag, even if you’re not travelling.
There are also ways to make life at the clinic less hectic. Taking a critical look at how you manage schedules and which materials, and treatment methods are used can help to make little changes that make a big difference. For example, switching from time-consuming fiberglass or Plaster of Paris casts to UPETS can help you shorten cast application times significantly. In a recent study, the average application time for UPETS was just over 20 minutes5.
Do you feel like casts are a time-consuming hassle – and risky, too? According to our survey, you're not alone.
Burnout has a price tag – and it’s not just about the money
Giving veterinarians tools and support to fight burnout is crucial, because the phenomenon comes with a massive cost. In the US veterinary medicine industry alone, the attributable cost of burnout is estimated between $1–2 billion lost revenue annually6.
The more harrowing price are the lives lost and minds broken. Veterinarians have the highest rate of suicide of all professions7,8. They are at high risk for mental illness like depression and anxiety.
James Hewitt now works with Dassiet as a consultant. He is passionate about giving people research-based and practical tools to support wellbeing and productivity. If you want to learn more about Hewitt’s philosophy on sustainable productivity, we highly recommend visiting his blog.
1. Mitchener, K, Ogilvie, G. Understanding Compassion Fatigue: Keys for the Caring Veterinary Healthcare Team. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1 July 2002; 38 (4): 307–310. doi: https://doi.org/10.5326/0380307
2. Bender, K.; New Studies Find Veterinarian Shortage Could Leave 75 Million Pets Without Medical Care by 2030. People.com, March 2, 2022. [Internet] Available at: https://people.com/pets/new-studies-find-veterinarian-shortage/
3. American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, [Internet] Available at https://www.aavmc.org/
4. Webb, A. Workplace abuse will push professionals away – study. vettimes.com August 17, 2022. [Internet] Available at: https://www.vettimes.co.uk/news/workplace-abuse-will-push-professionals-away-study/
5. Saku, S. A Summary of the UPETS Veterinary Splinting System 2022 Study. June 2022. [Internet] Available at: https://www.upets.vet/research
6. Neill, C., Hansen, C., Salois, M. The Economic Cost of Burnout in Veterinary Medicine. Front. Vet. Sci., 25 February 2022 Sec. Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics, [Internet] Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2022.814104/full#B6
7. Chan, M. Veterinarians Face Unique Issues That Make Suicide One of the Profession's Big Worries. Time.com. September 12, 2019. [Internet] Available at: https://time.com/5670965/veterinarian-suicide-help/
8. Lovell BL, Lee RT. Burnout and health promotion in veterinary medicine. Can Vet J. 2013 Aug;54(8):790-1. PMID: 24155482; PMCID: PMC3711171.[Internet] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3711171/