Musings of a Veterinarian

Dealing With Burnout

January 10, 2010 By: Dr. K Category: For Vets, Opinion

Recent comments on my posts have touched on one of the most pervasive yet least talked about subjects in veterinary medicine: Burnout. There were no courses in vet school on how to deal with this topic. I suppose we are expected to suck it up and deal with it. That doesn’t sit well with me as I see excellent veterinarians bail on their careers, families, or worse, lives, in response to the stress this profession brings.

Burnout has many causes. Veterinarians typically work long hours. Very long hours. Those hours are changing, fortunately, for small animal veterinarians and a small subset of large animal veterinarians. Long hours alone can lead to mental fatigue but then take into consideration emergency care. The long hours topped off with calls in the middle of the night lead to physical fatigue. Yawn. For the practice owner, life is even more harried. Owners are balancing veterinary medicine with business decisions. In their “down time” they are making financial decisions for the practice, handling upset clients, and managing personnel. It can easily consume all of an owner’s waking hours. Maintaining a proper work to life balance is critical in keeping your sanity.

Next is the issue of stress. Every veterinarian has different stressors. For some it is dealing with difficult clientele who demand so much of your time you fall behind schedule or sit on the phone for what seems like hours waiting to leave at the end of the night. For others it is dealing with compassion fatigue. As acclimated to pain, suffering, and death vets become, we are never quite comfortable with it. The mental toll this takes is not always apparent until you find yourself lying awake at night thinking about a case. I still have patients who break my heart and I admit to tearing up over them. Compassion fatigue alone can be enough to lead a veterinarian to burnout. This phenomenon is common in all medical professions. And for other vets, stress comes from balancing the desire to provide optimal care with an owner’s financial considerations. Rare is the vet who hasn’t heard, “I can’t afford any of that. You’re going to let my pet die. If you cared you’d give it to me for free.” These difficult situations are only magnified by the aforementioned physical and mental fatigue.

Any job can cause burnout if the work environment is toxic. Viral personalities, unyielding bosses, unreasonable hours all lead to discontentment. As stress and angst grow at work, small issues become magnified and soon become large issues. In these cases, if the practice is stagnant and unwilling to change, you’ve got to make the change yourself. Quitting your job is no flippant recommendation. It should always be considered carefully as the grass is always greener.

So what do we do about it? More vacation, less hours? That will certainly help. Do we leave our jobs? For some that’s feasible, for others it’s not. But what are some creative ways to lessen the daily stress that tends to accumulate over time?

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Seriously. All those little things truly add up.
  • Remember there are always clients who won’t like you, won’t agree with you, and won’t listen to you no matter what you do. It’s not always easy to swallow criticism and personal attacks, but you are one in a long line of veterinarians who has been on the receiving end of a negative client.
  • Focus on your favorite clients. The one’s who bring you food, remember you during the holidays, and always thank you for your time.
  • Eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke, get enough sleep. Everyone knows these recommendations. Now actually follow them.
  • Stop micromanaging. Micromanagement creates more work. If the job isn’t getting done, it could be a personnel issue.
  • Use your vacation time.
  • Make your CE time count (especially if you can’t take vacation): If you can swing it, take one of those exotic continuing education courses to the Caribbean or Central America.
  • Say no. Believe it or not, you can refuse to pick up that extra day, run a bake sale for the kids, or cover another weekend.
  • Don’t be afraid to work part-time. There is no shame is cutting your hours to maintain a healthy family balance.
  • Find a hobby that gets you out of the house. Fresh air does wonders for the soul.
  • See your doctor. If you are experiencing severe fatigue, make sure nothing else is going on!

8 Comments to “Dealing With Burnout”

  1. Hello Dr. Koehl!

    I just wanted to add one to your fine list:

    Utilize your staff!! We got into the profession because we like to help, so delegate what you can, when you can. Registered/Certified/Licensed Techs can take a lot off your plate in most states and Assistants can help out where there’s an extra set of hands needed for simple tasks.

    If anything, it gives you someone to commiserate with, someone to talk to that understands compassion fatigue. A lot of times, burdens of the heart are easier when shared across many shoulders.

  2. Absolutely agreed! Thanks!

  3. Excellent article! I am a compassion fatigue specialist who brings this important topic to light for veterinary practices and shelters alike with private workshops and public speaking at conferences. Both burnout and compassion fatigue are pervasive!

    It is particularly important to realize that burnout, because it is caused by the work environment and WHERE we work, can be left behind by changing jobs or careers. However, compassion fatigue, which is caused by the work we DO, will follow you to the next job unless or until you either leave the profession which is a very sad consequence, or learn to take a personal journey through this difficult condition.

    To Health and Healing!
    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR
    interFace Veterinary HR Systems, LLC

  4. Amen to utilizing your staff!! I have been teching for 11 going on 12 yrs. and find I can do alot more than I am being used for,, My Vet (owner) could walk away and trust that whatever the task is, it will be done correctly and safely. USE US WE LOVE IT!

  5. “..there are always clients who won’t like you”… When I was in my first position after graduation, I ran up against this fact. My dad, a manager at IBM, put it in great perspective when he told me that not everyone liked Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln, why did I think they would all like me?
    Your list is great, every point is equally important and applies to all of us!

  6. Excellent, and thank you. I have been in practice now for 25 years and I’m so glad to see a proper handle placed on a condition I think we all suffer from at some time or other. Demands placed on us by client, financial, staff and regulatory bodies are enormous compared to most other professions. Compassion fatigue and it’s management should be included in all training programmes.

    My biggest regret is the toll that the professions has taken on my family and my relationship with them. Can this loss ever be amended?

  7. Anna M. Edling says:

    I have been in Veterinary medicine for 33 years. I am leaving my job and may retire fully. I approach each day with a great deal of anxiety and foreboding which at this point evokes a physiologic response that I can’t really control. I became a good veterinarian and developed additional skills after graduation including ultrasound and proficiency with exotics. I like the medicine and the process of diagnosis. I would admit that I am idealistic. Contributing to my exhaustion with the profession are inept bosses and lack of emotional support at work. I have never worked at a practice that employed a human resources person, even though I have worked at some higher level and very busy practices. Typically owners want the maximum performance though time to complete tasks and adequate qualified support staff are lacking. Work environments are so negative and people are so unhappy in many cases. We want to stay where we are because of bonds developed with clients but where can one go to find support and camaraderie? Bosses have meetings and ask for the opinions of highly qualified associates and valid points are never addressed. I feel like a bee in a hive. I am 64 and feel that with what I have learned over the years I could run a practice and make my employees happy. They are my bread and butter and my best asset. I need some time now – Want to walk away and never come back!

  8. Agree whole-heartedly.


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