Addressing causes of burnout in veterinary medicine

Burnout has to do with so much more than just the individual, said Clinton Neill, PhD, senior economist at the AVMA, who together with Dr. Kemba Marshall co-led the session “The Tangibles of Intangible Burnout” on Jan. 5 at the 2023 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Specifically, burnout has three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

Stressed medical professional
Preventing burnout requires time and intention. “If you don’t protect your time, your entire practice and staff will not be working at their top,” said Clinton Neill, PhD, senior economist at the AVMA.

Dr. Neill said the health of the practice and the entire veterinary industry is at stake when dealing with burnout. It affects everything from client satisfaction to staff turnover.

The interactive session addressed the following top five reasons for burnout:

  • Unfair treatment at work.
  • Unmanageable workload.
  • Lack of role clarity.
  • Lack of communication or perceived support from managers.
  • Unreasonable time pressures.

Increasing expectations from pet owners, overwhelming workloads, the impacts of the global pandemic, educational debt, and instances of cyberbullying are taking a toll. As a results of these stressors, many veterinarians find themselves experiencing compassion fatigue—the emotional and physical exhaustion that is often described as the negative cost of caring.

Additionally, burnout doesn’t just affect individuals; it has a role in the productivity of an entire workplace. Members of the AVMA House of Delegates recently discussed the impact of workplace culture on employee retention and well-being.

So how can veterinary employers and professionals anticipate, identify, and address burnout?

Dr. Neill suggested using the Professional Quality of Life Assessment, which measures how health care providers feel about their work as professional caregivers. It is a self-administered test of 30 questions to help determine someone’s current balance of positive and negative personal and work-related experiences.

Dr. Neill also introduced the burnout intervention study—a clinical trial being conducted by Cornell University and funded by the AVMA and the Zoetis Foundation to help address the issue of burnout in the veterinary profession.

Participating in the study means some practices will be provided with tools and skills to help reduce burnout and increase profitability. All practices will receive staff training provided free as part of the study.

Dr. Marshall, founder of Marshall Recruiting Consortium and a practicing veterinarian, suggested, “Communication may be the most important tool we have to significantly impact our profession,” emphasizing the need to be self-aware, listen actively, and ask questions.

The presenters reminded the audience that identifying and addressing burnout is extremely important to ensuring the health of the full veterinary team. “How do we provide resources in a way that they get taken advantage of?” Dr. Neill asked, adding that preventing burnout requires time and intention. “If you don’t protect your time, your entire practice and staff will not be working at their top.”

The AVMA provides resources online to support individual and workplace well-being as well as the Language of Veterinary Care Initiative, which provides resources devoted to supporting positive communication between veterinary teams and clients.