The COVID-19 pandemic has been undoubtedly challenging for hospitals and medical staff worldwide. From long hours to staff shortages, overworking and burnout are common among doctors and nurses alike. However, these feelings are not unique to those who work in the medical field. Veterinarians have also been reporting increased stress levels and feelings of burnout due to the pandemic.
According to the Veterinary Wellbeing Study conducted by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association, 9.7% of veterinarians and 18.1% of support staff are experiencing severe psychological distress. Additionally, nearly half of those surveyed reported high levels of burnout.
What is the cause of burnout and stress increase for veterinarians?
Veterinary services were declared essential early in the pandemic, but only for urgent care. As a result, there is a backlog of non-emergency services that many clinics are still working through today.
Many are quick to point to the increased demand for veterinary services due to a boom of new pet owners during the pandemic. However, this is not entirely accurate.
While pet adoption and fostering rates have increased during the pandemic, the increase in demand is likely due to pet owners simply paying more attention to their pets. Most owners are now working from home and noticing lumps, bumps, and symptoms they would’ve likely missed while working in the office.
Clientele growth is, of course, good news for any veterinary practice. Still, coupled with decreased efficiency due to reduced capacity and COVID-19 safety protocols, pet owners are forced to wait months for a veterinary appointment or drive far from home to receive care. Some clinics no longer allow owners to accompany their pets inside to reduce contact. This means that the veterinarian has to spend time speaking with the owner before and after the exam, adding more time per consultation and limiting how many patients can be seen per day.
However, 90% of responders to the Veterinary Wellbeing Study say that, much like the rest of the medical industry, a shortage of qualified staff is the primary concern and cause for overworking.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinary technicians have one of the highest turnover rates among medical professions, second only to registered nurses. Retention has long been a challenge due to long hours, inadequate pay, and high emotional demand. Indeed, this issue pre-dates the pandemic.
In an ideal world, each veterinarian should have four support staff. However, most clinics are operating at a ratio of two to one. Although COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in some areas, and clinics are finally starting to catch up on backlogs, continued worker shortages are making a full recovery difficult.
Some suggested initiatives to solve worker shortages in the industry include:
- Increasing the number of accredited veterinary tech programs and increasing enrollment.
- Fully utilizing the skills of veterinary techs currently working in practice.
- Establishing master’s degree-level advanced training opportunities.
Compassion fatigue is a common symptom among veterinarians and animal caregivers. Also known as “vicarious trauma” or “secondary traumatic stress”, compassion fatigue results from a medical caregiver taking on the burden of an ill or dying patient.
It’s no surprise that the veterinary medical field attracts a lot of individuals who are highly compassionate and empathetic and have the drive to provide care for others. While caregiving work can provide compassion satisfaction, it can also lead to compassion fatigue after repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as abuse, illness, and death.
Veterinary professionals are at high risk for compassion fatigue. Like other caregivers, they have to deliver bad news to clients, confront animal cruelty, and deal with clients who struggle to afford care for their pets. Frequent ethical dilemmas and moral stress in practice also contribute to feelings of fatigue.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue can show both psychological and physical symptoms. Some common signs include:
- Feelings of apathy
- Bottled up emotions
- Loss of pleasure from previously enjoyable activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Chronic physical ailments
- Lack of self-care
- Feeling mentally and physically tired
Addressing Compassion Fatigue
Prioritizing self-care is crucial to preventing and recovering from compassion fatigue. Veterinarians and other caregiving professionals have an ethical responsibility to take care of their patients and keep themselves well so they can continue their work. Here are some personal approaches that can help alleviate symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Focus on the basics: adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular physical activity.
- Engage in active relaxation and mindfulness activities such as yoga and meditation.
- Block time to be alone with yourself.
- Engage with co-workers to celebrate successes and mourn sorrows.
- Connect with colleagues for support to remind you that you’re not alone.
- Practise expressive writing and journal for 15-20 minutes per day.
- Complete basic hygiene tasks every day.
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