Veterinary Burnout: 8 Signs and What to Do About Them
Occupational burnout—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion—has been on the rise in veterinary medicine over the past few years.
A January 2022 white paper by Galaxy Vets showed a statistically significant increase in burnout levels in all groups of veterinary professionals, from veterinarians to customer service representatives, with younger veterinary professionals and technicians representing the most burned out. A February 2022 study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science concluded that more than half of these professionals suffer from veterinary burnout and that it's costing the industry more than $2 billion a year.
To avoid this, early intervention is key. That starts with recognizing both the symptoms and causes of burnout and putting strategies in place to counteract them.
8 Signs of Burnout
Burnout negatively impacts your physical, mental, and emotional health. Common signs of burnout can include:
- Becoming cynical or critical at work
- Dragging yourself to work and through the day
- Growing irritable or impatient with your co-workers and pet owners
- Lacking energy and concentration to be consistently productive
- Feeling disillusioned about your job
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or simply not feel at all
- Sleeping more or fewer hours than usual
- Experiencing increased headaches, stomach, bowel, and other physical problems
If you are experiencing any of these signs on a regular basis, you might be experiencing burnout. However, keep in mind that these can also reflect more serious conditions, such as depression or other physical disorders, so be sure to talk to a therapist, psychiatrist, or family doctor.
Causes of Veterinary Burnout
Veterinary burnout, specifically, has a number of common causes. These include the following:
- High student debt
- Long working hours
- Overwhelming caseload
- Patient death and poor outcomes
- Client complaints
- Toxic workplace
- Pandemic challenges
If you are dealing with any of these issues, you may be more likely to experience occupational burnout.
Strategies to Avoid Burnout
As burnout is considered both an organizational and individual issue, reducing it in veterinary medicine requires a two-pronged approach and a great deal of teamwork.
- Self-assess your own level of burnout.
- Check your predisposition to being a work martyr.
- Prioritize self-care and overall well-being.
- Develop a mindfulness practice that works for you, such as yoga or meditation.
- Reframe past negative experiences.
- Set boundaries to protect your mental health and well-being.
- Take time off and daily breaks (eating at your computer doesn't count). If finding the time is a challenge, talk to your supervisor about adjusting your caseload or ask for tried-and-true time management tips.
- Start and end each day with gratitude.
- Stay closer to positive people and avoid the opposite where you can.
- Limit exposure to toxic or negative social media and news.
- Avoid participating in gossip or complaining at work.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep per night, making sure to turn off screens one hour before.
- Increase your intake of vitamin D, as a deficiency can negatively affect mood.
- Aim for 30 minutes of movement each day, be it taking a short walk or playing with your kids or pet.
- Identify when you have been emotionally triggered and develop self-regulation practices, such as breathwork.
- Educate leadership on the signs of burnout and provide educational opportunities for employees, as well.
- Ensure that the leadership team leads by example in promoting a culture of well-being for themselves and their employees.
- Schedule regular well-being check-ins with team members and train your team leads to identify red flags.
- Appoint a team member to be in charge of educating the team about mental and emotional health.
- Enforce lunch hours, other breaks, and paid time off.
- Provide opportunities for employees to engage in self-assessment and discuss findings.
- Hang visual reminders around the practice.
- Connect team members with low- or no-cost mental health support.
- Schedule appropriately for the team that you have—not sacrificing anyone's mental or emotional wellness for productivity.
- Start each morning with a short, positive team huddle.
- Actively discourage team members from complaining or gossiping to each other when they're struggling; instead, encourage them to talk to a team lead for help or solutions.
- Create a psychologically safe environment where team members are comfortable speaking up and feel as though they'll be heard when they do.
It Takes a Village
Regardless of the signs and symptoms of burnout, overcoming them should not be a one-person effort. Maintaining a positive spirit and strong mental health in the face of challenges coming from all directions requires teamwork, with everyone supporting one another. The first step in addressing burnout may be admitting it's an issue, but the next step is to reach out for support. And ultimately, you may be surprised how many hands reach back.