Long hours, hard work and dealing with the loss of patients can make a veterinarian’s job difficult and emotional burnout a real risk. Tim Falk reports.
Dr Sophia Yin was a world-renowned veterinarian, animal behaviourist and pioneer of positive training methods. The 48-year-old Californian had worked tirelessly to help dogs and their owners, spreading the virtues of humane training methods all over the world. Yet, in September, 2014, Dr Yin tragically took her own life.
The news of Dr Yin’s suicide shocked the veterinary and animal training communities, but it also brought a wider issue to light: suicide among vets.
Many people are surprised to discover that vets have a higher suicide rate than the general population. In fact, a study of vets in Western Australia and Victoria revealed suicide rates four times greater than the rest of the adult population. Dealing with long hours, difficult procedures and the emotional strain when an animal dies places our vets under a significant amount of stress.
“Vets never forget the patients that they couldn’t save,” explains Dr Gretta Howard from Cherrybrook Vet Hospital. “I’ve cried about pets dying on many occasions and it’s usually the ones that I thought would make it but then take a turn for the worse. It can be a real shock if a pet appears as though it is improving but then deteriorates suddenly, and it certainly takes a big emotional toll.
“Another really tough situation is when a young, healthy pet is hit by a car. You know they had their whole life ahead of them but the degree of trauma can be so severe that sometimes the animal cannot be saved. The family are so upset and it’s up to the vet to counsel them through the difficult experience. Other times, owners can have trouble letting go of an elderly pet that is suffering and I have to bring up the subject of euthanasia with them, which can be very distressing,” says Dr Howard.
Too much to take
While suicide is indeed an undeniable problem among vets, a more prominent issue is burnout. Caused by the chronic stress and anxiety of the daily grind of their job, burnout refers to physical and psychological fatigue.
Clare Mann, psychologist and best-selling author (claremann.com), says burnout is a risk across a wide range of professions. “Burnout occurs when there is physical, mental and emotional exhaustion with high feelings of disillusionment. It is this latter emotion that results in a person becoming emotionally numbed to suffering — their own and others — and should be avoided at all costs,” she explains.
Also referred to as compassion fatigue, burnout can lead to an extensive variety of symptoms, from fatigue and insomnia to depression, anxiety and even musculoskeletal problems. Some vets will show signs of hypervigilance, while others will start making errors at work or turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of escape. The problem can be even worse in country practices and sole-charge practices, where vets are more isolated and may not have a big support network around them.
One Australian survey found that 63.4 per cent of vets experience depression, anxiety, stress or burnout. It doesn’t even take long for burnout to occur, with some vets experiencing problems only five years after entering the workforce. Studies from Europe and other parts of the world have also pointed to burnout as a growing issue amongst veterinarians.
“Euthanasia is probably the most difficult part of being a vet, as it can be an extremely upsetting time for the owner and the vet, who may have been the animal’s doctor since it was young,” says Dr Howard. “I do believe, however, that euthanasia can be a really peaceful experience and a positive way to say goodbye to a much-loved pet as it prevents suffering. What is heartbreaking is the number of unwanted animals that have to be euthanised in pounds, and the vets that have to do that suffer immensely.”
Additionally, financial concerns can cause plenty of stress for vets. Veterinary practice has very high overheads, with the need to purchase and maintain hospital-grade equipment such as X-ray, ultrasound and pathology, as well as pharmacy supplies, surgical supplies and diagnostic instruments. The perception that vets earn a lot is simply not true, especially when compared to their professional counterparts such as doctors and lawyers.
“There is so much pressure on vets from themselves and owners to succeed but sometimes there are bad days,” says Dr Howard. “It is really important for vets to look after their emotional wellbeing by ensuring their working hours are not excessive, getting sufficient sleep and having a good network of friends to remain social with.”
Despite the overwhelming and distressing aspects of the profession, Mann believes that many vets are spurred on by their desire to reduce the suffering of the animals they treat. But it’s important for vets to come to terms with their grief when they lose a patient.
“If they do not deal with their grief, it can become complicated and result in extreme distress or a numbing of their feelings, with apathy and indifference to suffering,” explains Mann. “When I say ‘deal with’, I mean ‘process and work through the emotions and meanings of the loss’. The numbing I refer to could be due to extreme stress over time without the opportunity to debrief, express their feelings and recover from losses.”
Like all professionals or volunteers working with suffering, vets need to look after themselves. They need to eat well, exercise, debrief, take time away to have fun, not drink too much coffee or alcohol, and work hard to enjoy the positive parts of live to avoid negative self-talk and potential cynicism arising, says Mann.
“So many of them ‘keep going’ and do not listen to their exhausted bodies and emotional overwhelm indicating that they need time away to rejuvenate. By seeking out the help of a skilled psychologist or counsellor, they can work through the difficult emotions before they become embedded as ‘stories’ in their memory, which are so painful they are pushed out of mind, only to resurface in the future,” she explains.
Every vet needs to find their own way of coping, their own method for dealing with the many stresses of their job. “I am lucky that my partner is also a vet and we will often support each other through tough times if there has been a difficult case,” says Dr Howard. “Discussing difficult cases with vet colleagues can also be a big help as well as taking regular holidays.”
The Australian Veterinary Association has a confidential counselling service for vets that is available via phone 24 hours a day. There are also excellent online forums offering support and advice world-wide for veterinarians, even if they are geographically isolated, for example the Veterinary Information Network.
“One of the most important roles is the practice owner,” says Dr Howard. “It is important that vets feel that they can easily approach their boss if there has been a difficult case or client and that the vet is properly supported.
“For new graduates, there is a mentoring programme where an experienced veterinarian can mentor a newly graduated vet. There are also new graduate-friendly vet practices so that graduates have the support they need during the first critical six to 12 months after graduating from their vet degree.”
As our knowledge and understanding of vet burnout grows, more strategies and networks are being put in place to offer vets the support they need to survive and thrive in a difficult profession. In time, this will hopefully lead to fewer cases of burnout, more vets enjoying long and happy careers, and fewer vets seeing no other way out than to take their own lives.
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