How Veterinarians Can Survive the Industry’s Mental Health Crisis

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veterinarian mental health

News outlets recently picked up the story of a healthy dog who was euthanized in order to be buried with her owner, who passed away and had indicated in her will that this was her wish.

Emma, the Shih Tzu mix, was euthanized and cremated, and her ashes were returned to the executor of the owner’s will. 

Backlash from this decision quickly spread across social media once the story broke late in May. Reactions mostly fell on the side of abhorrence and dismay at the idea of a healthy pet being euthanized. 

A few responses indicated support for the decision, inferring that it was a better fate for the dog than being doomed to life in a shelter. These responses, however, were few and far between.

This example, while extreme, is just one of the impossible situations veterinarians may find themselves in at some point during their careers — and it’s a contributing factor to the alarming decline of mental health found within an industry built around compassion.

Compassion Fatigue and Mental Health

The term compassion fatigue describes a feeling of indifference toward those who are suffering due to the frequency and intensity of the appeals an individual receives. 

It’s a term often used to describe veterinarians, who are subjected to workplace stressors unlike those found in many other industries. And it’s something that has directly contributed to a growing mental health crisis within the veterinary industry.

A study released by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in January of this year noted that the suicide rate for veterinarians is higher than the national average — two times higher for male veterinarians and 3.5 times higher for female veterinarians.

In addition, a 2018 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study found that nearly 25 percent of veterinarians have considered suicide. 

These numbers are alarming, but they are perhaps unsurprising. Several factors and stressors affect the mental health of practitioners all over the world. This has led to the creation of nonprofits and support centers dedicated to destigmatizing the need for mental health support. 

So what can be done? How can veterinarians and their staff maintain a healthy workplace that reduces the amount of mental stress each employee bears? Between overwhelming student debt, low salary, lack of proper work/life balance, and pushback or attacks online from disgruntled or mis-educated clients, it’s little wonder that veterinarians feel no relief in their day-to-day work.

Identifying Stressors in the Workplace

As a practice owner or manager, the power is often in your hands to ensure a healthy workplace environment for your staff. Unfortunately, much stigma still surrounds the idea of asking for support or help. 

In particular, veterinarians, who are seen as caretakers, often feel “less than” if they admit to needing help. For this reason, it’s important for leaders within the practice to set an example of empowerment for the rest of the staff.

Empowerment does not mean anarchy and lack of discipline or respect in the workplace. Rather, empowerment can be as simple as having an open dialogue with employees so that they feel they can be vulnerable or voice concerns without backlash. 

You can make simple changes to help alleviate some of the everyday stress that accompanies work in a veterinary office.

Address Burnout with Scheduling Updates

Burnout is one of the top-reported stressors in any workplace. For those working in a veterinary practice, burnout is often caused by heavy scheduling. Consider the case for doctors and technicians who are on call for emergency services. 

An on-call shift that starts within a few hours or immediately following a full day can be a recipe for exhaustion and, you guessed it, burnout. While this may be unavoidable due to various factors such as short staffing, it may still be beneficial to take a cursory look at the on-call-shift scheduling process.

Consider giving employees a later start the morning after an on-call shift. Alternatively, schedule an earlier end time for the day of an on-call shift. If you’re in charge of the scheduling and unsure what would help those in the office more, do some intelligence gathering: ask around, solicit feedback from the doctors and the other employees on call. Not only will this help you create a healthier scheduling balance, but it will also give those involved a voice and a “say” over their schedule. 

This type of “schedule burnout” is not solely limited to emergency hours, either. Consider the practice that has late evening or weekend hours. Scheduling these long days can present a challenge, even with a full staff. 

Some practices have begun offering more flexible scheduling options, such as the option to work longer days in exchange for more time off each week, or vice versa. Remember: not every schedule is suitable for every employee’s optimal performance. Try out some flexible scheduling and see if it might be a viable option for your clinic. 

Keep a Close Eye on Social Media

As most of us know too well, a negative review can be more impactful, in the long run, than a positive one. For that reason, social media chatter or reviews can often be a source of stress and “mob mentality” against a practice at which a customer was unhappy.

Think back to the news story we referenced at the beginning of this article. The comments on social media posts regarding the topic are mostly negative. As difficult a decision as it was for the veterinarians involved (who have thus far not been named), the public shaming and mob mentality surely does not help.

This compassion fatigue can really set in when a vet is faced with a situation in which they feel they have no control. This issue only becomes exacerbated with the court of public opinion that is social media or online reviews.

Take the time to monitor these platforms. Should you encounter a negative situation, do what you can to moderate or defuse it rather than letting it escalate into fever pitch. 

Of course, in some cases it’s best not to give attention to those who clearly seek it. This determination comes down to the practice owner’s discretion. 

Doctors of veterinary medicine have much to contend with on a daily basis. With responsibilities to juggle, demanding schedules, student debt loads, and poor work/life balance, it’s little surprise that mental health has quickly reached the point of crisis. 

Practices that take these matters seriously and actively seek ways to support their staff members will be better set up to deal with obstacles as they arise. Veterinary organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, are taking note of this and making inroads in intervention. It’s important that each practice does what it can to encourage lower levels of stress, burnout, and depression among its staff. 

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