Let’s Talk About Veterinary Burnout

Ross Zimmerman
December 14, 2023

We know what burnout is, we see it far too often in our hospitals, in our peers, and across the veterinary industry as a whole. It affects vets, techs, and practice manages alike, many of whom struggle silently. 

So what can we do about it? How can we seek help for ourselves and what can others do to help? There’s one shockingly simple solution that can make a larger impact than you might think: 

Just talk about it.  

With the holidays coming up, many of us will be spending time with our loved ones, the people we trust most and feel safest with. For many in vet med, this time will bring a desperately needed break from mounting stressors. But this may also be an ideal time to have these conversations and receive some much-needed relief.   

What causes burnout?

To get to the bottom of how we can prevent burnout in veterinary medicine and help those who are struggling, we need to have an understanding of what causes it in the first place.  

Burnout is the result of chronic stress in our careers resulting in exhaustion, negativity, cynicism towards our work and clients, and declining job performance, which in medicine can have life or death consequences (World Health Organization). 

Burnout can have a number of causes, many of which we can’t control. Since it's healthier to focus on what we can control, it often comes down to a “lack of holding boundaries with ourselves” according to family therapist, Kaitlyn Hensley.  

Boundary-setting in general can be difficult even though it yields successful results because it requires us to have to say “no” in some way, shape, or form, whether that be to ourselves or to others, which can bring upon an immediate feeling of guilt.”

Kaitlyn Hensley, LMFT

So many of us have a tendency to push ourselves past our limits, and in caregiving careers, this may even feel necessary. However, unregulated over long periods of time, this urge can become unhealthy. “When working in a helping field/caregiving role, we tend to put pressure on ourselves to always be the one to help and never the one who needs help, which is an unfair expectation to place upon anybody,” says Kaitlyn, who also works in a caregiving field. 

As we so often hear on airlines, we must secure our own air mask before helping others. We’re capable of providing far better care for our patients when we ourselves are healthy.  

What to look out for: 11 signs of veterinary burnout

As medical professionals, you’re no stranger to looking for symptoms to reach a diagnosis. Here’s what you can look for in yourself or your peers that might indicate someone’s grappling with burnout: 

  1. Exhaustion — both physical and mental (this is usually the first symptom to present and the easiest to spot)   
  2. Irritability, lethargy, and quickness to become overwhelmed
  3. Forgetfulness
  4. Decline in work performance
  5. Anxiety and depression
  6. Lack of empathy where there was once a lot of empathy

This last one is particularly scary. “Those in caregiving roles often find it fulfilling to help and as a result are able to maintain great amounts of empathy,” says Kaitlyn, “But when burnout is occurring, we notice that we may struggle to be empathic with those we are trying to help.”

This poses a threat to the caregiving work technicians and veterinarians do on a daily basis. Worse yet, there’s a risk to the individual if burnout escalates. Here are the warning signs that burnout is progressing to a dangerous point:

  1. Lack of sleep or too much sleep
  2. Decrease in appetite or overeating
  3. Snappiness with others
  4. Isolation or withdrawal
  5. Suicidal talk or ideation

Look for these symptoms of burnout reaching a crisis point in order to intervene as early as possible. 

Why we should talk about veterinary burnout 

It’s ironic that this problem caused by our inability to create boundaries is often made worse by the boundaries we create for ourselves. 

It’s no surprise that veterinary professionals have trouble sharing negative work experiences with friends and family. I mean, who wants to talk about work, especially when it’s going to dredge up a whole bunch of painful emotions and listeners outside the industry may not even understand? But having these conversations with a safe person can actually bring relief, and this is true of far more than just burnout. 

Here are several benefits that can be gained just by talking with someone safe and trusted like a close coworker, friend, loved one, or family member: 

  1. Relief from the heaviness of it all as you no longer have to bear this burden alone or “keep it all in”
  2. Cathartic experience of feeling seen and heard 
  3. Feeling cared for
  4. Feeling like you’re not alone in your struggles anymore
  5. The listener may be able to offer a new perspective on your problems, which may lead to unexpected solutions

That all sounds amazing, so what’s stopping us? Let’s take a closer look at the boundaries we’re creating by questioning why we’re putting them up in the first place.  

What’s stopping us from having the conversation?

Our natural tendency is to keep it all inside. It’s scary to share our feelings because doing so makes us vulnerable. Shame, guilt, and embarrassment tend to stand in the way of veterinary professionals opening up about their struggles with burnout. But these fears are just that — fears.

The fear of others’ responses to our vulnerabilities is incredibly valid, but it is also important that we understand that fear and reality are not always one in the same. If you have a safe person/people in your circle, odds are, they will not judge you and be glad you opened up to them.”

Kaitlyn Hensley, LMFT

Think about it this way: If a coworker or friend came to you with their struggles, how would you respond? Would you be harsh and judgmental? Or would you listen, empathize, and try to help? We work in a caregiving industry, help is our nature. Of course your coworkers will help you if you open up to them. Of course. 

The same holds true of friends, family, and loved ones. Of course they’ll help. But they’ll never know that you need help unless you open up to them about your career and struggles first. 

Most importantly, it’s okay to ask for help. We’re only human. Don’t let fear stand in the way of getting the support you need. 

How to approach conversations about burnout

These conversations are scary for good reason: you’re about to make yourself very vulnerable by opening up. For the best results, follow Kaitlyn’s tips below for the most constructive experience: 

1. Carefully consider the person you’re going to open up to

Make sure whoever you’re opening up to is someone you trust who cares about you. This sounds like a no-brainer, but to get the most benefit out of these conversations, it’s crucial you feel safe, and that starts with choosing the right person to talk to.

2. Ask permission before jumping in

It’s respectful to ask permission before you confide in someone, especially if it’s a coworker. This doesn’t have to be a robotic exchange, try something as simple as, “Can I vent for a minute?” Once you’ve gotten permission, you can begin to express the things you’re struggling with. 

3. Clarify what you hope to get out of the conversation

Be clear about what you hope to get out of this discussion upfront. If you’re just looking for a space to share and not looking for advice, let them know. Often, we just need someone to listen.

4. Be honest, don’t downplay

“If you downplay your struggles, you are not helping anyone and may have a harder time receiving the support you are seeking,” says Kaitlyn. Your feelings are valid, and you’re feeling the way you do for a reason. There’s no shame in your emotions, and odds are, many others feel similarly.

How to listen and respond when a peer comes to you for help

Okay, let’s reverse the roles for a moment: Say a peer of yours has come to you for help. This is by no means unlikely, a ton of veterinary professionals suffer from burnout. What are the best ways for you to approach the conversation from the listening/support end?  

1. Listen and hold the space

Plain and simple. Really listen, don’t go anywhere. 

2. Help them get the support they need

If you feel your peer or loved one could benefit from more support than you’re capable of providing, offer to help them find that support so they don’t feel alone or dismissed. 

3. Avoid minimizing, downplaying, or dismissing

This is huge. The person coming to you for support has put themselves in a very vulnerable position. Be extra careful not to invalidate the way they're feeling. Their feelings are real, and if they have reached a point where they’re seeking outside support, their struggle is substantial. 

4. Don’t make it about you

Sometimes sharing our experience can be relatable and help the person feel less alone in their struggles, but other times, it can feel dismissive. If you feel the urge to share your own feelings or struggles, first ask yourself, “Am I saying this for me or for them?” 

5. Look out for warning signs

Be on the lookout for suicidal-sounding thoughts. These may sound like variations of:

  • “I don’t want to be here”
  • “I can’t do this anymore”
  • “I wish I could disappear”

Don’t be afraid to clarify what that person means and if they have any plans to harm themselves. You should be extremely concerned for someone’s safety if that person is self-isolating or not taking care of themselves. 

If needed, refer them to resources like a suicide hotline or Not One More Vet’s Lifeboat Service

How do we prevent veterinary burnout in our peers and in our clinics? 

“In order to try and prevent or avoid burnout, we have to know our limits and do our best to honor them by holding healthy boundaries with ourselves and others,” Kaitlyn advises. Ask yourself: “How many hours a day or week feels like a doable amount for me?” “What is my ideal work environment?” “How do I work best?”

As veterinary professionals, we can help create safe workplace environments and be supportive to protect our peers from burnout. The easiest way to do this is to offer to be a safe person to talk to if anyone wants to express any difficulties they may be having. 

Minimize judgment of others and empathize with your peers. When it’s within your means, offer to be helpful, whether that means covering a shift or just taking on certain tasks to lighten their load. 

Practice Managers can be supportive in similar ways, however, always be aware of the power dynamic. Managers need to be responsible and use their authority for good rather than taking advantage of employees. If you’re in a position of leadership at a veterinary clinic, try being extra mindful not to guilt employees when they need to take a break or time off. Respect their boundaries and try to recognize when they’re struggling.   

If you’re struggling with maintaining personal boundaries because your work environment isn’t allowing it, maybe it’s time to consider other hospitals. If your workplace is not supportive of your overall health and well-being, it’s very likely time for a change. However, in many instances like this, veterinarians could find themselves locked into their employment by a non-compete contract. If change isn’t possible, do your best to prioritize yourself outside of work. 

Talk about burnout — it makes a difference!

Kaitlyn really puts it best, “When we are struggling emotionally, we often just want a space to be listened to and to feel heard, so if we can clarify what we are seeking, we are more likely to receive that response from someone else. In doing so, there can be a lot of relief, and… sometimes talking about our difficulties out loud can help us shift perspective and come up with solutions.” 

Seeking professional support can be helpful as well, especially because it ensures you’ll be sharing with a safe person in a confidential, judgment-free space, which is not always possible when we confide in friends or coworkers.

If you’re feeling burned out this holiday season, talk about it. There are plenty of people who love you and would be happy to support you, you just need to take the first step and reach out or they’ll have no way of knowing.

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