Working on Sleep: Sleep Deprivation in Vet Med

Dr. William Tancredi, DVM
September 19, 2023

The relatively recent JAVMA article sheds light on the sleep deprivation of veterinarians in residency, revealing some concerning trends. It appears residents are grappling with heavy workloads that compromise their sleep, which can undoubtedly impact their performance and learning within their specialties. This situation seems to be embraced with a misguided sense of pride, which isn't conducive to a healthy professional environment or the practice of high-quality medicine. Our reason for being here, I was led to believe, was the practice of high-quality medicine rather than the competitive martyrdom that unfortunately pervades our profession.

Sleep deprivation in vet med

Demanding schedules are commonplace in veterinary school and internships. Regrettably, this prevailing pattern is far from optimal for the well-being of our profession, perhaps evidenced by the distressing suicide rates among veterinarians. What could be a more emphatic case for reinforcing the need for a healthier approach to our work?

It's evident that we often adhere to unhealthy standards of constant self-sacrifice, which are unsustainable and have documented detrimental effects on our mental and physical health as well as our executive function and clinical judgment. As a profession that genuinely acknowledges the importance of well-being, we seem to overlook the very factors that contribute to our own distress.

Prioritizing our own health & wellness

It's imperative that we prioritize our health in a meaningful manner, moving beyond the superficial "self-care" trends often seen on social media. While a spa day or a night out might provide a few hours relief, the real solution lies in cultivating habits such as maintaining a balanced diet, adhering to a regular exercise routine, and ensuring adequate sleep. Studies unequivocally demonstrate the negative impact of sleep deprivation on learning, decision-making, and empathy — qualities absolutely crucial for practicing veterinary medicine effectively. 

The rigors of our education and post-graduate training can, unfortunately and ironically, hinder the delivery of high-quality veterinary care. This could potentially explain the increasing number of veterinarians rejecting rigid structures imposed by various authority figures, whether corporate entities, private equity firms, or academic institutions, and pursuing lines of work that are more compatible with a healthy lifestyle.

Finding wellness in the flexibility of relief work

Interestingly, veterinarians seem to be making choices that prioritize their overall well-being, which in turn affects the entire industry. The appeal of job flexibility, exemplified by relief work, offers a healthier lifestyle and better work-life balance. As a result, veterinarians are more apt to enhance their knowledge, improve their performance, make informed decisions, and foster empathy – all qualities that make not just for happier doctors but better ones.

While some might simplify the pursuit of increased productivity by merely extending working hours, it's becoming apparent that a wiser approach involves offering veterinarians flexible schedules and safeguarding their time off. This shift away from rigid institutional and corporate mandates has manifested in diverse ways, ranging from instances of burnout to those choosing to exit the profession altogether. Many are even embracing the role of a relief veterinarian as a means to achieve a healthier equilibrium.

It's clear that a more considerate approach to our profession's demands is warranted. These are the scientifically documented, physiological demands of humans — all of them. By prioritizing the health and well-being of veterinarians, we can enhance the quality of care we provide, foster a positive work environment, and contribute to the sustainability of our field in the years ahead.

Don’t buy it? That’s okay, maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe you just need some sleep.

Related resources

More from Roo4You
More from Roo4You