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4 top reasons for burnout in vets

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

Despite the perception that being a Veterinarian is a great job where you make heaps of money and get to play with animals all day, the reality of being a Vet can be quite the opposite.

There have been numerous studies and research (including my own current Doctoral research on this topic, which is also looking at interventions to try and combat the negative effects of the job), on Vet stress, depression, burnout, and unfortunately - suicide. Many of you may not realise how high the rate of suicide is for Vets....on average, Vets are four times more likely than the general population, and twice as likely as other health professionals to commit suicide. Pretty startling statistics huh!

With such high statistics, I feel it is important to address what I have found to be the top 4 things that can lead to burnout in Vets. These are:

  1. euthanaisia

  2. compassion fatigue

  3. owners' expectations

  4. financial issues.

Let's take a quick look at each of these.....

#1 - Euthanaisia

Research has shown that euthanaising animals is one of the most stressful aspects of being a Vet (my own research is focussing on this). One of the reasons for this is said to be due to severing the human-animal bond.

Due to the shorter life-span of animals, many Vets therefore see their 'clients' (ie. the pets) from birth through to old age. For this reason, they can become attached to certain animals themselves because they have known the pet throughout its lifespan.

Also, the reason/s behind euthanaising animals can have an impact. For example - compare working at a pound or similar facility where it may be required to put young, healthy animals to sleep - versus the 'gift' of being able to end the suffering of an elderly, sick, or terminally injured animal.

#2 - Compassion fatigue

Like most of the 'helping' professions, compassion fatigue is an issue for many Vets. By nature, the majority of Vets get into the occupation due to their love of animals and desire to help.

Unfortunately there can be a downside to this, where Vets can get worn out, or burnout, by being compassionate all the time, and also having to deal with owners' grief and suffering as a result of what has happened to their animal.

#3 - Owners' expectations

Does the expression 'miracle worker' resonate with you? Unfortunately many owners perceive vets to be miracle workers and expect them to be able to 'fix' everything or 'cure' their pet from any illness, injury, or disease. Obviously, there is only so much you can do!

Another factor with owners' expectations are that because of your caring and compassionate nature, you will work for free, or at a reduced cost. This may occur if the animal is brought in to the clinic by someone else (eg. if the pet was hit by a car) and you have possibly just save the pet's life. In walks the owner expecting to just collect their pet and take him/her home without paying you a cent. Or they may be angry that they have now incurred a cost for treating/saving the pet.

#4 - Financial matters

As well as the financial stress and challenges for those of you who own your own practice, there are other financial stressors as a result of the pet owner's circumstances.

For example - knowing you could save an animal, but the owner not being in a financial position to pay for the treatment. Again - most likely this leads back to #1 Euthanaisia.

Encouraging pet owners to take out pet insurance is on the rise, as this can be a somewhat preventative measure that can be taken to reduce this stressor. That is - if more owners had adequate pet insurance, there is more chance of the pet receiving treatment and surviving - and less need to euthanaise unnecessarily.


About Dr Nadine Hamilton

As a leading authority on veterinary wellbeing, Dr Hamilton helps veterinary professionals get on top of stress and conflict to avoid burnout and suicide, and also works with practice managers and owners to increase wellbeing, productivity, and retention in the workplace. Additionally, she provide workshops to small and large groups within the private and corporate sectors, and speaks at conferences and symposiums both nationally and internationally.

Her book "Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian - An Evidence-Based Solution to Increase Wellbeing" was released in March 2019 through Australian Academic Press, and is already making a positive impact within the profession - both here in Australia and internationally.

As an advocate for the veterinary profession, Dr Hamilton founded the charity "Love Your Pet Love Your Vet" and partnered with Royal Canin to reduce stigma in veterinary professionals seeking help, raising awareness within the community about the realities of working in the profession, and providing psychological and educational support to veterinary professionals.

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