Jan 18, 2024

Burnout in Veterinary Medicine: A Work-Life Balance Guide

Bryce Patterson
Burnout in Veterinary Medicine: A Work-Life Balance Guide

One of the most exciting things about running the VetHealth Podcast has been the different insights that we’ve gained on fighting burnout in veterinary medicine. It’s the central question that we had in mind when we started the show. How can caregivers look after their own needs in a world that constantly demands more and more from them?

Chances are you’re already aware that burnout is a major problem in the field- but you might not realize how pervasive the impact really is. Even as things have improved post-Covid, the outlook is dire and the issues is not limited to DVMs. Veterinary technician burnout is a huge concern and rates of veterinary compassion fatigue are extremely high.

The personal cost is obvious- practitioners struggling emotionally, with many leaving the field. Collectively, a recent Cornell study put the economic cost of burnout in the veterinary industry at nearly $2 billion in a year. The question is how we can respond. This guide looks at both individual and organizational approaches to fighting burnout.

Personal Steps for Fighting Burnout

It’s that line you always hear before your flight takes off: make sure to secure your own mask before helping someone else with theirs. Fighting burnout in veterinary medicine starts with a range of individual habits and processes. Here are the major suggestions we’ve gotten from professionals across the field. 

1. Let Go of Control

Solo practitioner Dr. Shawna Garner recommends drawing clear lines for yourself to decide where your responsibility ends and the pet owner’s responsibility begins. It’s an important step to recognize that you’re not the sole arbiter of an animal’s health. 

In her words: “A lot of times, veterinarians will take on a patient personally… they want to do absolutely everything and if the pet owner can’t, they feel the guilt.”

Long-term, it’s healthier to make your recommendations, then let it go. You’re only one stakeholder. If the pet owner can’t or won’t take the recommended steps, you’ve done your job. The rest is out of your hands.

Similarly, Dr. Rachael Kuhn recommends taking a step back and delegating more. She sees DVMs taking on more of a supervisory role, allowing their teams to handle more day-to-day. That means taking the time to really train staff, but it allows for veterinarians to focus on the things that they truly need to do without taking on too much.

An image of a woman holding a cat representing the ways that clinics can help with fighting burnout in veterinary medicine.

2. The Hardest Part is Getting There

Whether it’s driving to the trailhead or going out to dinner with friends, a lot of the most meaningful ways that we can take care of ourselves involve an initial step out of the door. That can be hard after a long day in-clinic, or a long week of on-call. 

For practice owner Aliyah Pipal, it’s important to recognize that the initial step might sound unappealing, but that self-care is an active process. Intentionally building in time and space for the things you love to do will pay off in the long-run, even if it’s tough to take the initial steps.

3. Be Intentional About When You Work

In particular, be intentional about when you shut off. Dr. Shawna does anti-social Sundays, where she steps away from social media and only uses her phone for calls. Dr. Cherice Roth takes time to get her hair done, knowing that it’s an hour where she absolutely can’t work.

In-clinic, this can be as simple as fighting the urge to respond to an email on your lunch break, or it can be actually using your PTO to take a real vacation. Just make sure that you’re giving yourself the space to be off the clock. One simple way to decompress during the day can be to walk out to your car and give yourself five minutes to breathe.

If you are going to answer work-related questions outside of your regular hours, consider offering that support as telemedicine and charging for your time. Essentially, the goal here is to segment your day-to-day life more clearly between the personal and professional. It's a valuable step toward recuperating during your off hours and avoiding veterinary compassion fatigue.

A dog in a cone representing the ways that clinics can help with fighting burnout in veterinary medicine.

4. Know Yourself (and Be Selfish)

Professor and former AVMA-president Dr. Lori Teller recommends recognizing and prioritizing the things you need to do to recuperate. An extroverted adrenaline junkie is going to approach self-care in a fundamentally different way from an introverted bookworm, and both approaches are completely valid. 

Whatever your methods for self-care, those might clash at times with other aspects of your life- i.e. the ways that your spouse blows off steam after a long day. It’s important to have conversations about your needs and prioritize the things that make you feel your best. If you need to take an hour to read in silence when you get home from the clinic, make that clear and build it into your weekly schedule.

5. Talk About Your Struggles

Whether you’re dealing with veterinary compassion fatigue, exhaustion from on-call hours, or you’re stressed out from the daily struggles of practice management, it’s important to avoid bottling it up. Fighting burnout in veterinary medicine means prioritizing those conversations within your team, with a licensed therapist, via online veterinary communities, and/or with friends and family.

Remember to check in with your staff as well! Even if it’s only for a couple of minutes between appointments, taking the time to talk and catch up helps everyone to feel better and can be useful for fighting veterinary technician burnout.

One last thing to remember: as a leader in your practice, the ways that you take care of yourself will shape the ways that others in your practice look after themselves. Here’s how Dr. Roth put it: “I can’t keep sending emails at 3 o’clock in the morning because people are responding to them because they see it’s from me. That’s not cool.”

Setting an example of a healthier work-life balance can have a ripple effect throughout your clinic. On the flip side- constantly overworking, refusing to take breaks, and responding to questions off-the-clock can build up an unhealthy culture. If not for yourself, build some breathing room into your schedule so your team knows to do the same.

It's Still Not Enough

Here’s the thing: these are all helpful actions to take, but they aren’t enough by themselves. 

Most clinics were built and structured based on a level of demand that just isn’t accurate anymore. Between surges in pet ownership and changing client expectations, small day-to-day interventions aren’t enough. Instead, fighting burnout in veterinary medicine means looking at the structure of our clinics and finding ways to simplify, streamline, and offload tasks wherever possible.

Collective Steps for Fighting Burnout in Veterinary Medicine

Again: the challenges that cause veterinary burnout and veterinary compassion fatigue can’t be solved just via individual actions. So what can we do to build healthier structures into our clinics?

1. Organize Your Processes

A chaotic practice is a high stress space. It’s really that simple, and taking the time to create clear standard operating procedures for your team is a huge step toward a smoother workday. If you already have written SOPs, it might be a good time to take a look and see if they’re as clear and streamlined as possible.

In particular, auditing your SOPs can be helpful for segmenting roles and recognizing where DVMs might be doing work that would be better handled by technicians. That wastes valuable time and can hurt the overall job satisfaction of your team- feeling under-utilized is a major driver of veterinary technician burnout. Similarly, you might find areas where your front desk could be more efficient or certain tasks could be offloaded. Speaking of which…

A kitten relaxing, representing the ways that we can fight burnout in veterinary medicine.

2. Use the Tools Available to You

You don’t need to be extremely tech-forward to find a lot of opportunities here. Whether you look within the veterinary industry or at virtual tools more broadly, a lot of basic clinic operations can move more smoothly with the right toolset. 

On a simple level, Dr. Rachael Kuhn has found that texting templates allow for really simple, quick customer communications, winning back time for reception staff to focus on client service. Similarly, Jotform allows her team to take care of customer paperwork before a client even arrives at the clinic. 

Shawna uses Talkatoo for medical dictation services, automatically transcribing her voice into a script that can go directly into the PIMS. She also recommends Vetsource as a virtual pharmacy. 

Dr. Teller highly recommends GuardianVets for providing after hours care, saying: “The private practice that I came from- one of the best things they ever did was start utilizing GuardianVets… they use that after hours for triage purposes and I think that was a huge benefit to our clients.” On top of supporting your community, partnering with GuardianVets gives your team more nights off and less distractions. It’s a huge way that clinics can take care of their people- providing gold-standard medicine without the long nights.

Remember: you don't need to fight burnout in veterinary medicine alone.

3. Manage Relationships with Clients

Every DVM has stories about inappropriate times that they’ve been asked for veterinary advice. Your front desk staff has absolutely dealt with angry callers and frustrated clients in the waiting room. Issues are unavoidable (and a huge driver of veterinary compassion fatigue), but there is work that we can do day-to-day to alleviate some of the common problems. What we’re really talking about here is managing expectations and setting boundaries. It isn’t easy, but it’s vital to maintaining a healthier practice. 

At its absolute worst, this can end up looking like cyberbullying, and the AVMA actually offers a toolkit for managing your reputation. It’s a phenomenal resource that you can check out here.

For more standard day-to-day concerns, there are a number of steps that you can take. 

First, build your operations such that no one ever needs to contact a client using their personal number. This is especially important for DVMs on-call. Once that boundary has been breached, it’s really hard to go back. DVMs can end up getting late night calls and texts anytime the pet owner has a concern. 

Second, figure out where you’re willing to be flexible and where you have hard boundaries and be consistent. Will you squeeze in one last case at 5 p.m. when the clinic is closing? If not- where do you direct someone looking for support at that time? Setting clear protocols for yourself and your team can alleviate some of the stress in these moments.

Finally: when you need to, don’t be afraid to send a client elsewhere. If you find that a relationship is overly clingy or becoming toxic, recommend they move to another clinic. It’s not easy, but the worst relationships often end up taking more time and energy than any other. Don’t let angry clients take away the joy of practicing medicine.

A woman hugging her dog, finally free from burnout in veterinary medicine.

The future of veterinary medicine can be better for practitioners. It needs to be. These steps can be incredibly valuable for fighting veterinary burnout, and we’d love to know what other tips and recommendations you have! 

Reach out to us on social media: @guardianvets.

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