“I wish the general public could understand that a lot is going on. We’re not making you wait in that exam room because we want to make you wait. Likely we’re trying to save another animal’s life, or we’re in a surgery that isn’t going as well as we hoped, and that’s really stressful.”
Michael Bugg, DVM
The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) recently published its 2022 demographic survey. While wages are up across the board, and job satisfaction was at nearly 70 percent, respondents reported feeling taxed by their job. According to the survey, 70 percent of respondents experienced burnout, and 65 percent reported feeling compassion fatigue. While open discussion of compassion fatigue has become more common in veterinary practices, there needs to be more change or improvement. Only one in five survey participants say they spend enough time on self-care, and less than 60 percent take the vacation time allotted to them.
“I had a ten-year clinical veterinary career in both large and small animals and had a similar experience to many people in the veterinary profession. Over time, my wife coined the term ‘miserable Mike’ for me because of all the job pressures. I had started to really feel some burnout,” shares Dr. Michael Bugg, a veterinarian and author of You’re Gonna Get Peed On!: How Veterinarians Can Keep Their Dream Job from Becoming a Nightmare While Working Less and Earning More.
Burnout and compassion fatigue impact all professionals in this field, from veterinarians to assistants and technicians. Like human healthcare burnout, there are many reasons for veterinary professional burnout. Factors include staffing shortages, high daily patient turnover expectations, and long hours. “I wish the general public could understand that a lot is going on. We’re not making you wait in that exam room because we want to make you wait. Likely we’re trying to save another animal’s life, or we’re in a surgery that isn’t going as well as we hoped, and that’s really stressful,” shares Dr. Bugg.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes of burnout in veterinary professionals and what individuals, clinics, and the overall profession are doing to help combat it.
Meet the Expert: Michael Bugg, DVM
Dr. Michael Bugg is a veterinarian and real estate investor with more than a decade of clinical experience in veterinary medicine. His burnout from veterinary clinical practice led him to explore real estate investing alongside his wife, which allowed him to reduce his veterinary hours and eventually become a full-time real estate investor.
Dr. Bugg is dedicated to helping other veterinarians combat burnout by taking control of their finances and aligning their lives with their veterinary vision. He co-hosts The Veterinary Project podcast, which provides guidance for thriving in veterinary careers and designing fulfilling lives. He is the author of You’re Gonna Get Peed On!: How Veterinarians Can Keep Their Dream Job from Becoming a Nightmare While Working Less and Earning More, published in March 2023.
Causes of Burnout
Burnout in veterinary professionals is rarely the result of just one factor. Burnout is a complicated feeling from prolonged mental, emotional, and physical stress. Here are some of the factors that contribute to burnout.
“In my opinion, the number one reason for burnout is overload,” shares Dr. Bugg. “When I talk to people, both veterinary technicians and veterinarians. At the core, they do love what they do. They entered the profession to help animals to help clients, and that lights them up. They’re just doing too much of it.”
Part of this overload is due to a shortage of trained staff at all levels. The 2022 report “Tackling the Veterinary Professional Shortage” estimates that there will be a shortage of 132,885 veterinary technicians and nearly 41,000 veterinarians to meet the needs of companion animal healthcare by 2030.
Shrinking Appointment Times
The demand for veterinary appointments increased by 6.5 percent between January 2021 and June 2021, more than the same time period in previous years. This increase in demand, along with staff shortages and a push for higher profits, have contributed to shorter appointment times. “I experienced appointment times shrinking just due to the demand to see more patients. Where the pet lands as a family member have also been elevated, so the expectations are rising on the quality of care,” explains Dr. Bugg. “Clients want more and expect more, and the medicine continues to advance so we can deliver more, but you don’t have more time. You can’t deliver a top-quality level of care in a 10-minute block which contributes to stress. I’ve got ten patients waiting for me, and I gotta get moving.”
Loss of Passion
Over time, many veterinary professionals can feel like they are just doing a job rather than pursuing their passion. “When we talk about burnout, one of the things we will talk about is detaching from your purpose. Most everyone got into this career because they wanted to help. When they get to go into an exam room and spend the appropriate amount of time, that passion is still there,” explains Dr. Bugg. “The faster that appointments start moving and happening, we lose a little bit of that passion piece, which is so important for our longevity in this profession.”
Veterinary professionals have to make hundreds of choices daily in high-paced and high-stress situations. “One of the big reasons for burnout includes decision fatigue. On any given day, you’re making an enormous amount of decisions. That can get very tiring. Sometimes we get put in situations where people may want you to do things that aren’t ethical, and you’re stuck in the middle of competing wishes of people and what’s right for an animal that can’t speak for itself,” Dr. Bugg says.
Per the American Veterinary Association, “Compassion fatigue and burnout are similar but not interchangeable. Compassion fatigue—also known as ‘vicarious trauma,’ ‘secondary traumatic stress’ or ‘secondary victimization’—is the result of a medical caregiver’s unique relationship with a patient, through which empathy allows the caregiver to ‘take on the burden’ of the ill or dying patient.” While empathy and compassion are critical parts of the job, too much of it can lead to overwhelm.
“We’re feeling with the owner and patient, and that’s important for building rapport and trust. However, it becomes a problem if we’re overloaded or slip into empathetic distress. And that’s draining, like any type of pain, whether it’s a broken arm or emotional pain. Unregulated over time, it will deplete dopamine and lead to fatigue,” says Dr. Bugg.
Ways to Combat Veterinary Professional Burnout
Since burnout comes from various factors, tackling it must be multifaceted: “We can’t think that these things exist in silos. Such as, here’s my work and personal life, and they do not mix. That’s just a fairy tale. When we look at burnout, it’s the compounding stress over time. So, anything we can remove, such as decision fatigue, compassion fatigue, or the financial burden, they can add up to make a big difference,” encourages Dr. Bugg. Here are some of his top suggestions for treating veterinary professionals’ burnout.
“One of the first things someone can do to combat burnout is mindfulness, specifically mindfulness-based stress reduction. I’ve done it personally and taken courses on it. It has been life-changing. Studies show that it literally will change the brain, increase gray matter in the good areas of the brain, and decrease your amygdala, which is responsible for stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Bugg.
It can be very tempting for veterinary professionals to make work the highest priority, but that can lead to burnout. “Be honest about what you want your career to look like. Just because a mentor chooses to work 60 to 80 hours a week and constantly be on call doesn’t mean that’s what you have to do. I see a cycle in the veterinary industry where things have always been done a certain way, so that’s how we will do it. It’s time for people to take that responsibility to identify for themselves and be intentional about what they want,” says Dr. Bugg.
This can look in many ways, including taking time off, cultivating a work environment with clear and open communication, and providing staff with continuing education options that foster positive mental health.
Intentionally designing clinics with staff mental health in mind can also be an excellent way to help prevent burnout. “A good friend has opened a veterinary clinic where the whole basement is set aside for the veterinary team. They can go there if they’re on a break or have a gap in their appointments. They can disappear, and they’re out of the mix of the clinic bustle. Because it’s not a break if you’re standing in the treatment room but not seeing an appointment. You’re still in that environment,” he explains.
While pay for professionals in this field has steadily increased, one in three veterinary technicians works a second job just to make ends meet. “There is a financial component to burnout, which we can’t ignore. It does feel like the dial has been turned up over in the last few years with inflation and everything costing more,” shares Dr. Bugg. More than one-third of veterinary technicians have student loan debt, with the average debt being $29,700.
When staff have more control over their weekly schedule, it can help alleviate stress and reduce burnout. “One thing I’m seeing that is working is more flexible scheduling. Instead of telling staff you will work these days or these hours, sit down as a team and plan it out. Obviously, all the shifts have to be filled, and someone has to work Friday afternoon, but there’s a way that it can rotate through so everyone gets more of a break,” shares Dr. Bugg. Flexible scheduling also includes prioritizing taking time off for personal matters and vacations.
Including Prevention in Veterinary Education
Veterinary education programs at all levels also have a role to play in preventing burnout: “We are starting to see veterinary schools recognize impending burnout and now implement preventative programs for their students. When I went through veterinary school, all this was a foreign language. But now students in veterinary medicine have access to mindfulness classes where they can start to build skills that aren’t just medicine and surgery but will help keep them in this profession for a long time,” says Dr. Bugg.