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How a program with education, mentorship, and resources to combat career burnout is catching on among veterinarians and clinic staff.

Addie Reinhard, DVM, had a busy summer, both personally and professionally. She was constantly on the go, traveling to destinations including Canada, Denver, Colorado, and Kansas City, Missouri, to speak to other industry stakeholders about MentorVet. She was also excited to announce the completion of the new 2023 American Animal Hospital Association Mentoring Guidelines, which she worked in a task force to develop alongside co-chair Marie Sato Quicksall, DVM, CVA, and other veterinarians.

“We crossed the finish line,” she posted on LinkedIn this summer. “And I’m so happy to be able to shout this from the rooftops now!”


Indeed, both the Mentoring Guidelines, and MentorVet’s advocacy efforts are cause for encouragement in an industry seeking solutions to combat workforce burnout.

Dr. Reinhard’s work stems from her personal experience as a young veterinary professional. Upon graduation from veterinary school in 2015, Dr. Reinhard jumped immediately into clinical work at a veterinary practice. Although she had plenty of great mentors among the staff, there were challenges associated with going from student to real world clinical work that she struggled with. It was a big jump in responsibility to accept a leadership role, navigate conflict in the workplace, and come face to face with real ethical dilemmas in patient care – all while getting her bearings in the professional world. “I experienced burnout pretty severely a couple of times in my career in the first four years,” she said.

The second time she went through burnout, Dr. Reinhard started talking openly about her experience. “This was back in 2018, before the mental health conversations were starting in our industry.” After sharing her experiences, she realized that other professionals had similar stories. But she saw few solutions available. There was a big gap in resources for young professionals in particular.

So, Dr. Reinhard quit her full-time job and enrolled in the University of Kentucky for the purpose of getting the education, training and skills needed to create evidence-based programming that would support veterinary professionals dealing with burnout. Her graduate research focused on veterinary well-being and mental health, particularly on how to create interventions.

Dr. Reinhard piloted her first program in the summer of 2020. “We saw some exciting results with reductions in stress and burnout, and improvements in well-being.” The pilot got the attention of industry stakeholders who wanted to support the project. In 2021, Dr. Reinhard both earned her master’s degree and formed MentorVet as an entity with the help of Merck Animal Health as a founding sponsor.

Today MentorVet has around 30 sponsors and partners, and more than 1,000 professionals have gone through the organization’s programs. “We’re seeing the evidence of significant improvements in burnout on average for participants,” said Dr. Reinhard, who is also involved with Merck Animal Health’s Well-being Study, so she has first-hand access to the latest research and data on burnout in the veterinary profession.

One of MentorVet’s newest partners is the American Veterinary Medical Association. Launched in the summer of 2023, MentorVet Connect brought to you by the AVMA is an evidence-based, paired mentorship platform that creates one-on-one connections between veterinarians. Free of charge to AVMA members who graduated between 2018 and 2023, the program provides a solid foundation to launch mentees on a path toward success and career fulfillment.

While the original vision behind the program was to create a national mentorship network, MentorVet’s scope has expanded to creating evidence-based support structures for the entire veterinary team at all stages of their career. “This is because we all need mentorship at every point in our career,” Dr. Reinhard said. MentorVet piloted its veterinary technician program earlier this year, yielding positive results. A mid-career veterinarian program will be launching soon, as well as a mentor certificate program to help people learn how to be better mentors.

 

MentorVet has around 30 sponsors and partners, and more than 1,000 professionals have gone through the organization’s programs.
MentorVet has around 30 sponsors and partners, and more than 1,000 professionals have gone through the organization’s programs.

‘Backed by science’

When creating a program, the MentorVet team starts with focus groups and interviews with the individuals that they will be serving. This needs assessment helps to identify the challenges and stressors of these populations.

For example, this January, MentorVet conducted a focus group with around 20 veterinary technicians to better understand their experience and practices. What are the pain points that vet techs are having? And what resources might help combat those stressors?

MentorVet then took qualitative data from the group and leveraged it in addition to existing research on stressors and challenges of veterinary technicians. From there, the team created a tailored program.

“The curriculum developed for the technician program is going to be very different than the vet program, or the early career vet program, just because the challenges and stressors are different,” Dr. Reinhard said.

For instance, within the veterinary technician program, MentorVet curriculum developers knew they needed to have training around physical well-being because of the physical demands of the job. The developers talked with physical therapists about ways to help prevent injuries on the job so veterinary technicians can last more than 5 to 10 years on the floor without back problems or other limitations. The technician program includes techniques for healthy lifting and exercises to strengthen one’s muscles so that when a veterinary technician is lifting a heavy dog onto a table, he or she isn’t bending and twisting in a way that may cause an injury.

Most of MentorVet’s research is conducted out of Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Reinhard is an adjunct instructor. As the program is operating, the MentorVet team rigorously evaluates the impact of the program through pre-post measures, and different mental health and well-being measures, to determine if the program is actually having a desired outcome. If not, then the

team will either make changes to the program or discontinue it in favor of something else. “We don’t want to offer something that’s not working, so we do a lot of program evaluation.”

 

Kelley Berkeley BS, LVT, CCFP, believes MentorVet and other programs are important for the longevity of the profession.
Kelley Berkeley BS, LVT, CCFP, believes MentorVet and other programs are important for the longevity of the profession.

Prevalence of burnout

One benefactor of the MentorVet Leap program is Ricky Walther, DVM, a 2020 graduate of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. To say his entry into the veterinary profession was chaotic would be an understatement. Because of social distancing mandates in California, he was sent home from his fourth-year clinical rotations, which ended about 10 weeks early.

After graduation, Dr. Walther’s original plan was to decompress and travel, but his trip was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, within two weeks of earning his degree he jumped right into work for a seven-doctor companion animal practice where he had done his fourth-year externship. “My first practice was fantastic,” he said. “I was really excited and confident to join the team and hit the ground running.”

However, the clinic was extremely busy. Caseloads were up, there were new protocols to learn, and the staff numbers were always fluctuating because people needed to stay home to take care of sick family members or were sick themselves. Everything was heightened because of the pandemic.

By the six-month mark out of school, Dr. Walther was riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. He had burnout. “I loved the work, but it was just more consuming and overwhelming than I was ready for.”

A change of scenery helped, at least for a little while. Dr. Walther accepted an opportunity to be a medical director for a new hospital with a corporate group in town. He enjoyed the leadership aspects of the role and the rush of opening up a new practice. Even so, burnout began to creep in a few months later.

Fortunately, the corporate group enrolled Dr. Walther into the MentorVet Leap program. He said the mix of education, mentorship and peer-to-peer interactions proved timely. One of the most impactful modules for Dr. Walther covered boundary setting. “It sounds so basic, that you should have boundaries at work. But it’s often really hard to do in veterinary medicine.”

Dr. Walther was better able to evaluate, rank, and separate time between work commitments and his personal life. “I have to make time for the things that make me whole so that I can show up for my patients,” he said he came to realize. “It helped me to find a positive, happy, balanced place to work in as a practitioner and as a medical director. I don’t think I would have successfully been able to balance all those different responsibilities in my role without some of the self-care workshops MentorVet offered.”

Dr. Walther’s burnout story is an all-to-common one. For the industry’s youngest professionals, those who graduated within the last five years, the incidence of moderate to severe burnout is around 75%. The overall population – staff and veterinarians – is at about 60%.

A lot of factors go into burnout. In its core definition, Dr. Reinhard describes burnout as a psychological syndrome that emerges as a prolonged response to chronic stress on the job. Essentially, this is stress left unchecked at work. So, if you’re not doing anything to cope with your stress in a healthy way, or you’re not reducing your stressors, over time, this leads to burnout, which essentially presents itself in three common ways:

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism about your work
  • Feelings that the work you’re doing doesn’t matter

“We know that this profession is an inherently stressful one,” Dr. Reinhard said. “There’s been research dating back 20-30 years showing higher levels of stress within this profession as compared to the general population.”

Conflicts with team members, ethical dilemmas of what care to offer, the intersection of money and clients not being able to afford the recommended treatment options, client complaints, unexpected outcomes, mistake making, long hours, heavy workload – these are just a few of the many stressors in the workplace. Another big stressor is that veterinary clinics are short staffed and don’t have enough qualified team members.

“A lot of what I’m hearing from young professionals, whether it’s veterinarians, technicians, or CSRs, is that there’s just not enough people to do the work that needs to be done,” Dr. Reinhard said. This creates an overwhelming workload compounded by stressors of the pandemic, which made everything significantly worse.

“I think we’re just seeing a lot of stress, and without support to manage stress or ways to navigate stress, it can just compound over time,” she continued. “A lot of what we do with our programming is give tangible tools to not only reduce your stress after it’s occurred, but also how to navigate the stressors before they even happen and make you feel more capable and prepared as the stressors occur.”

Dr. Reinhard said it’s critical to equip people with the right knowledge and tools to be able to feel more prepared, and partner them with other professionals who may have gone through those scenarios in the past. Peer mentorship is another core component of the programming.

Meeting with small groups of other professionals allows individuals a space to talk openly about the challenges that they’re facing, and how they’re leveraging these new skills that they’re learning to navigate the stressors. “It makes people feel like they’re not so alone in what they’re experiencing and gives them some real-world examples of applying these skills.”

MentorVet rounds out its offering for program participants with access to mental health professionals, social workers, licensed therapists, as well as financial coaches. “The participants are getting access to one-on-one mentorship, and peer support from fellow vets, and can meet with one of our mental health professionals who can provide personalized advice on some of the things that they are experiencing or meet with a financial counselor to get advice on personal finances,” Dr. Reinhard said. “This is all still within the context of their career. It’s translating knowledge from different fields to apply it to veterinary medicine.”

 

Dr. Reinhard’s work stems from her personal experience as a young veterinary professional.
Dr. Reinhard’s work stems from her personal experience as a young veterinary professional.

Everyday application

Kellye Berkley, BS, LVT, CCFP, said her most notable experience with burnout was a time where she was working as an entry level manager while still being a licensed veterinary technician on a busy clinical floor. She experienced conflict with higher level management that led her to feeling not good enough, micromanaged, and that she was not making a difference with her team. “Additionally, I felt the pressure of not being able to devote 100% to both jobs,” she said. “This left me with anxiety and doubt about if I were a good technician and good leader of my team.”

The MentorVet Tech program taught Berkley and other techs in a way they could fully understand through identifying the basics and critical thinking skills, she said. For example, in one of the sections, the participants discussed the different emotions they often felt on the job, and what might be the core reason they were feeling each emotion. “By teaching us in this way, I was able to understand it better, because I thought of it like a case at work, finding the root of the problem and then hopefully fixing it.”

The most helpful skills from the program for Berkley were self-reflection and conflict management. Every day she tries to self-reflect about her work and what emotions she might

have been feeling. This practice helps keep her more mentally aware of when she needs a break or when she may be struggling. Additionally, she’s used the conflict management program to help with issues that have come up at work, and even at home.

“I think MentorVet and other programs are so important for the longevity of our profession,” she said. “We all want to stay in this profession and to be good, quality veterinarians and veterinary support staff. Programs like these help us stay present and mentally healthy.”

Reading the room

As a constant presence in veterinary clinics, distributor reps are well positioned to gauge whether a veterinary team member or the clinic collectively is experiencing burnout. “Does the culture of the practice feel energetic, and everybody seems to be working hard together?” Dr. Reinhard said. “Or, are people just down, depressed or slumping, and the vibe doesn’t feel right?”

Conversations around ways to combat burnout can happen between distributor reps and practice managers, especially if reps are aware of the different resources available, such as MentorVet, the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, the Veterinary Hope Foundation, and AVMA’s wellbeing resources.

A constructive conversation with a practice manager could start with, “Did you know according to the latest research that 75% of veterinary professionals that have graduated in the last five years, and around half of professionals overall, are experiencing moderate to severe burnout, but there are tools that can help with that?’ ‘Have you heard of these programs or efficiency tools that can help your team?’”

Having candid conversations, particularly with veterinary clinic leadership, can create the opportunity for a positive change. “If we can get leadership to buy in to the resources, then it will trickle down to the rest of the team,” Dr. Reinhard said. “When leaders advocate for these resources, then the team can benefit. I think it’s just a matter of having those conversations with leadership and providing some solutions. Then everybody’s happy, because they now know something that they didn’t know before that can help their team.”

Heading off problems before they start

MentorVet and programs like it will be crucial for teaching veterinarians the skill sets that veterinary schools don’t always bring up to handle real-world situations such as compassion fatigue, burnout, and the inability for some owners to pay for care. For Dr. Walther, MentorVet helped him to switch from what life was like as a vet student to what life can be like as a veterinarian, “because those are different things,” he said. “And there are a lot of different stressors to be aware of.”

Veterinary schools can only do so much to teach students about what it’s going to be like in the professional world. But until a veterinarian is out in the field practicing medicine, he or she won’t be as knowledgeable about stressors and what kind of guidance they need to overcome them. MentorVet’s programs provide a structured environment for skills development and an opportunity for professionals to talk about the challenges they are facing with peers and a mentor.

“Veterinarians are often Type A personalities and perfectionists, which means they have a tendency of being both highly motivated and highly critical of themselves,” Dr. Walther said. “Programs like MentorVet give them the ability to be vulnerable. It’s like a collective learning experience so that not every veterinarian has to go through the same hurdles.”

Many veterinarians talk about how the first five years out of school are the most challenging. MentorVet is a resource that can help people who don’t want to leave the profession early, who

really do enjoy the work, stay and/or create a role within veterinary medicine that fits their needs. “Given everything we’ve got going on in the profession, MentorVet is crucial to try to speed up that transition,” Dr. Walther said. “We can make people feel better in their roles sooner, so that we don’t get as much turnover as we’re experiencing.”

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