Veterinary profession heading in right direction with mental health
Veterinary profession heading in right direction with mental health
Findings from the fourth edition of Merck's wellbeing study released at VMX
Updated February 6, 2024
The veterinary profession has come a long way in the nearly seven years since the first major study came out on veterinary mental health, wellbeing, and burnout. The stigma around mental health issues has lessened, more people who need it are seeking help, and more resources are available to create psychologically safe workplaces (see sidebar).
The 2023 Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study IV, conducted by Brakke Consulting Inc. in collaboration with the AVMA, has been repeated every other year since 2017. In 2021, the study added veterinary team wellbeing as an additional component.
The 2023 Veterinary Team Wellbeing Study II had nearly five times more responses from veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, customer service representatives (CSRs), and practice managers than the 2021 survey.
“On behalf of Merck Animal Health and my fellow veterinary professionals that are making mental health and wellbeing a priority, we are proud to see so many positives coming out of our fourth Veterinary Wellbeing study,” said Dr. Christine Royal, vice president of Merck Animal Health’s companion animal and equine business unit. “Of course, we recognize there is still work that must be done in order to address challenges and empower professionals of all levels to thrive within veterinary medicine. Through our ongoing partnership with AVMA and support of evidence-based resources like MentorVet, we remain committed and excited for the future of the veterinary profession.”
AVMA President Dr. Rena Carlson said the study findings demonstrate greater numbers of individuals and practices are taking a more proactive approach toward mental health and wellbeing.
“The study also outlines action steps that are making a difference in reducing stress and burnout, such as creating a positive and healthy work culture, offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), having a social life beyond work, managing debt, and implementing self-care strategies,” Dr. Carlson said. “Merck’s latest study indicates good progress, yet our work in this space must continue and it is our hope that more veterinarians and veterinary teams will take full advantage of the wealth of resources available to help them on their journey.”
Key findings among veterinarians
A panel presentation during VMX discussed key findings from the study as well as tangible steps that can be taken at both the personal and professional levels to continue the progress made. Presenters were Dr. Laura Greene, a senior professional services veterinarian with Merck; John Volk, senior consultant for Brakke; and Dr. Addie Reinhard, founder and CEO of MentorVet.
The reality of veterinarian wellbeing appears to be more positive than perception, Dr. Greene said. When asked how satisfied veterinarians think their peers are with their career, only 43% believed others in the profession were somewhat or extremely satisfied. However, nearly three quarters of veterinarians (74%) reported being somewhat or extremely satisfied with their own careers.
At the same time, 56% of veterinarian respondents strongly agree with the statement they take pride in their work, compared with 51% of the general population. Potential contributors to job satisfaction are increasing incomes as well as a decrease in self-reported hours worked.
At least half (53.9%) of all veterinarian respondents are flourishing, according to scores on the Cantril Ladder, a validated wellbeing scale. However, scores vary based on age and educational debt levels.
Almost 60% of veterinarians aged 55 to 64 are flourishing in their careers compared with 44.4% of veterinarians aged 18 to 34. In addition, Volk noted that more than 60.8% of veterinarian respondents with no educational debt are flourishing while only 37.7% of those with $300,000 or more of educational reported the same.
Using the Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT-12), the study shows veterinarians (82%) experience similar levels of low to medium burnout as the general population (84%) but have higher levels of exhaustion—61% for veterinarians versus 32% of the general population.
“That means you’re beat, you’re tired. You don’t want to see that with anybody,” but it’s more preferable than other components of burnout such as compassion fatigue, Volk said.
Variations among age groups were seen with burnout levels as well, with 17.3% of those aged 18 to 34 experiencing serious psychological distress compared with 6% of those aged 55 to 64.
A positive development the study revealed was a growing number of respondents’ attitudes improving around mental health. Seventy-three percent of veterinarians surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that mental health treatment helps veterinarians lead normal lives versus 68% giving that response in 2019. And more seem to be taking a proactive approach toward mental health. A quarter of veterinarians surveyed said they are receiving counseling compared with 13% in 2017.
This boost is likely due to an increase in the number of veterinary employers offering mental health insurance coverage—52% in 2023 versus 44% in 2017—and employee assistance programs—38% in 2023 versus 21% in 2017.
When asked if the positive results meant “taking the foot off the gas” on efforts in mental health help and awareness, Dr. Greene assured it would not.
“Some advantages of these studies are they allow us to focus our efforts. As we identify populations (that are suffering), rather than take a foot off the gas, it’s like having a better roadmap,” Dr. Green said.
Key findings among the veterinary team
The Merck study also shows a sizeable amount of veterinary team members (81%) are invested in their work and take pride in doing a good job. And while 73% of this group reports they have a mid- to high-level of job satisfaction, nearly 60% of the veterinary team members surveyed feel unsatisfied with their income and financial situations. In fact, 68% ranked compensation as the single biggest challenge for this group.
One in four reported they work a second job to pay their bills. About 60% of veterinary team members say they carry credit card balances month to month. And respondents have a mean educational debt level that ranges from $12,300 to $15,400. Notably, the veterinary team group skewed younger overall than the veterinarian group. Those aged 18 to 44 accounted for 81% of the former compared with 42% of the latter.
“There are notable differences in wellbeing among the different roles and this is where it becomes really valuable for us to be able to generate this more comprehensive survey because we can begin to isolate that out to recognize the populations that are doing well and to acknowledge those areas of our veterinary team that need a little bit more support and to identify what the reasons are that are contributing to that,” Dr. Greene said.
Nearly 42% of veterinary clinic staff is flourishing and 51.5% is getting by, according to the wellbeing scale, but responses differed by position. For instance, veterinary assistants and CSRs have lower wellbeing than other team types with just 33.6% and 39.4% flourishing, respectively, while 52.3% of hospital managers and 42.6% of veterinary technicians are flourishing.
Burnout also varied, albeit slightly, among veterinary team roles. Sixty-nine percent of veterinary technicians experience low to medium burnout, while 76% of veterinary assistants and 80% of hospital managers and CSRs also experience low to medium burnout. The veterinary team respondents were more likely to experience exhaustion (72%) compared with the general population (32%).
Around 80% of veterinary team member respondents are not in serious psychological distress. Specifically, 73.8% of veterinary assistant respondents are not in distress and the same goes for 89.4% of hospital manager respondents.
“Our team members are so integral to our practice. We are a team, and we can’t operate or function without every individual on our team,” Dr. Reinhard said. “So, what can we do to support ourselves and the people around us?”
An ounce of prevention
Increasing the mental health and wellbeing of the veterinary profession requires not only individual effort, but also at the workplace level.
“This is a team effort,” Dr. Reinhard said. “If I am in the healthiest of workplaces, but I’m not taking care of myself and setting boundaries for myself, I might have burnout. Alternatively, if I’m doing all the meditation in the world and working in a place that is not healthy for me, I might still be experiencing challenges.”
For workplaces, a good starting point is creating a psychologically safe environment, she said. This happens when practices have healthy and frequent discussions. They also create opportunities for safely discussing mental health topics, use team meetings to highlight wellbeing resources offered to employees, and discuss challenges and highlight positives from the past week.
In doing so, it allows veterinary team members to feel a sense of belonging in their workplace and take part in open communication, Dr. Reinhard said.
Employers can also provide access to such useful resources as veterinary social workers, financial advisors, external peer support groups, and continuing education on professional skills, including communication and conflict resolution.
Dr. Reinhard encouraged employers to leverage members of the veterinary team, especially veterinary technicians, to the best of their training so they can be more empowered and happier in the workplace. Higher compensation, more learning opportunities, schedule flexibility, and greater autonomy were other suggestions.
On a personal level, work-life balance is the most importance predictor of wellbeing and diminished—or improved—mental health. But it’s not the only thing.
The Merck study showed those who were outperforming their colleagues in wellbeing, mental health, and burnout had an active social life, engaged in healthy activities such as exercise, adopted positive coping mechanisms, and had hired a financial advisor.
In addition, the No. 1 predictor of low wellbeing, high burnout, and serious psychological distress is neuroticism. Those with this personality trait, which is prevalent among veterinarians and veterinary team members, are inclined to experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and dramatic mood shifts than those who score low in neuroticism.
“Knowing about your personality type is power. It gives you the ability to say, ‘This is what I’m going to be really good at and this is what I need to do to take care of myself,’” Dr. Reinhard said. “And so, I encourage everyone, if you’re not sure exactly where your personality type is falling, learn more about yourself, which is a great way to contribute to your own wellbeing.”
The fourth edition of the Merck wellbeing study was conducted in September and October 2023 by Brakke among a nationally representative sample of 4,636 veterinarians in the U.S., both practitioners and nonpractitioners.
To achieve a comprehensive study of veterinary team members in 2023, Brakke collaborated with NAVTA, the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA) and others to sample veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, hospital practice managers, reception/client service representatives and other members of a veterinary clinic’s team. A total of 2,271 completed questionnaires were returned.
Dr. Reinhard said there is a lot to be hopeful for when looking at where things are going as a profession.
“We are really starting to pour more resources into this issue. And if we can continue as a profession to raise attention on this issue, and continue to move forward, we can continue this positive trajectory,” she said.
A version of this story appears in the March 2024 print issue of JAVMA
Resources available to promote mental health, wellbeing
Because of the growing awareness of mental health and wellbeing concerns, many in the veterinary profession have created resources in the past decade focused on this issue.
The AVMA is among those, offering such resources, as suicide prevention education, wellbeing assessments, and scientific research on wellbeing.
The AVMA’s Train the Trainer wellbeing educator program empowers veterinary professionals to become educators in workplace communication skills that support wellbeing. The Association also offers the Workplace Wellbeing Certificate Program. It provides problem-solving resources to help any veterinary team member lead their workplace to reach its maximum wellbeing potential. Five educational modules are taught by subject experts from across the veterinary community.
In addition, MentorVet is a veterinary mentorship and professional development program that offers evidence-based solutions to promote early career wellbeing.
Last year, the AVMA and MentorVet announced a partnership called MentorVet Connect, which brings the mentorship program free of charge to any AVMA member in their first 10 years as a veterinarian. Pairing new graduates and AVMA members with at least one year of professional experience, the program provides a solid foundation to launch mentees on a path toward success and career fulfillment.
Other mental health and wellbeing resources available include: