Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to speak to, and work with, several practising veterinarians (vets). One common - and recurring - theme is "overwork" and "overwhelm".
So what are the causes, and why is it affecting so many vets? Here's my perspective...
Working in veterinary medicine can be likened to that of human medicine and working in an emergency department - you never know what to expect, or when. No two days are likely to be the same, and it is a constant state of hyper-vigilance for those involved - trying to get through the routine and planned consults and surgeries, while anticipating that an emergency could come through the door at any moment (and quite often, right before closing time!).
Like many businesses, vets may have KPIs they need to achieve. This can result in having consultations back-to-back throughout the day. Like human medicine, any setback in these consultations beyond the allotted appointment time results in the vet running behind, and under pressure to try and regain that time somewhere throughout the day - all the while trying to maintain a happy demeanour and positive attitude and give 100% to each patient. Add a couple of emergencies to the mix, as well as having to document case notes, and you can see how there is little time to take a break.
There is no doubt that veterinary medicine is unpredictable, and can take its toll on those working in the industry. In my experience, most vets share the key character strength of kindness, which unfortunately can be taken advantage of. Some clients may try to manipulate you into getting their own way (say be threatening to write bad reviews about you and/or the clinic on social media or some other review platform), or they may simply threaten you or threaten to harm the animal if you don't give in to their demands (I have personally heard many stories from those in the industry where pet owners have threatened to kill the animal themselves if the vet won't treat it asap!).
The majority of vets I know chose veterinary medicine as their career choice as they care for animals and what to help them have a great quality of life. So when an emergency presents itself 10 minutes before closing, they can struggle to turn the patient away because they want to help the animal, and often, to avoid negative feedback or conflict. Unfortunately, this contributes to the additional workload....and fatigue.....and stress....and burnout. Sadly, for some (around 1 every 12 weeks), this results in suicide.
So what can you do about it?
Set boundaries with your clients - the more you give, the more they will take. If you continually treat their pets without scheduled appointments (unless it's an emergency of course!), particularly if it is right before closing, this can reinforce to them that this is acceptable
Utilise after-hours clinics for those after-hours emergencies. While it may not always be possible to refer a patient straight to the after-hours emergency, it may be appropriate to stabilise the patient and then refer to the after-hours emergency for appropriate treatment....rather than you and your staff staying late into the evening to monitor and treat the patient
Engage students on placement to cover busy lunch periods, so all staff can have a break (which they are legally entitled to)
Practice time management strategies (my online "Time Management Strategies" course offers some great suggestions)
Take a proactive approach to stress management (my online "Stress Management Strategies" course provides my top 10 tips for stress management)
Have a roster system for emergencies and last-minute appointments (so the same staff aren't required to remain late every time)
Award time off in lieu or some other reward for any overtime worked - while money can be a good incentive, it is not always what staff what
Learn and implement effective, evidence-based coping skills such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (my online "Introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" is now available)
Make sure you take time out for your own wellbeing, and do something you really enjoy (so long as it is healthy and legal!)
Talk to your colleagues about how you are feeling - chances are they might be feeling the same way
Seek professional support if you feel you are unable to cope on your own (I work directly with vets in a discrete way for coaching, counselling, and workshops)
Speak up and don't suffer in silence!
Taking care of yourself is a priority - after all, you will be of no use to yourself, your loved ones, and/or your clients if you are burnt out and on the verge of a breakdown.
Look after yourself - you deserve it!
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.