Healthy Teams, Healthy Outcomes
How one industry leader is helping veterinary professionals recognize the signs of stress and burnout.
Tara Bidgood, DVM, Ph.D., Diplomate ACVCP, CCFP, has been involved in mental health, education, and awareness for quite a few years now. “I’ve had family members, friends, and even veterinary colleagues suffer from mental illness,” said Dr. Bidgood, who is executive director of the Veterinary Professional Services and Medical Affairs Team at Zoetis Petcare (a U.S. business unit of Zoetis).
Years ago, her family recognized through personal experience that caregivers needed as much help as patients do, and Dr. Bidgood’s mom would end up starting a caregiver support association. “So it stems back quite far for me my involvement in supporting the community, and supporting the veterinary profession around mental health.”
Fast forward now to the COVID era, which added another layer of stress for veterinary professionals, both professionally and personally. Because of these added stress points, Dr. Bidgood wanted to learn more and be part of a solution. So, she enrolled in an educational certification course focused on compassion fatigue.
What started out as a course has become Dr. Bidgood’s passion project. Over the last couple of years, she has connected with other people at Zoetis who share her passion. Together, they created a training program on how taking care of your patients means taking care of yourself, keeping your compassion batteries charged. The training has been available for almost a year, and in that span of time, Dr. Bidgood and her colleagues have helped bring awareness and education on burnout, compassion fatigue, and building resiliency skills around well-being to more than 850 veterinarians, technicians, and staff members.
Dr. Bidgood spoke to Veterinary Advantage about the need for more training, resources, and awareness at an organizational level on mental health issues within the industry.
Defining aspects of mental health
Though linked, burnout and compassion fatigue are not the same. Dr. Bidgood said it’s important for us to understand what each means so we can better address each issue.
Having compassion fatigue doesn’t mean you lose compassion. Compassion fatigue involves two parts – burnout, and secondary traumatic stress.
Burnout is when we feel worn out, or overwhelmed, from stress that has compiled. Burnout happens over time, like a constant drip, drip, drip, Dr. Bidgood said. “Over time, we get this built up feeling of being overwhelmed, worn out. It’s usually linked to stressors at work – the work culture, working long hours, having too much on our plate or challenging relationships or conversations with co-workers and clients.”
Burnout goes beyond having a stressful day at work. “We all feel stress sometimes,” said Dr. Bidgood. “Sometimes stress is good, it can motivate us and give us the energy to do something we really enjoy. But burnout is more of a chronic state of stress if you ignore it – that drip, drip, drip of stress builds up, and leads to burnout.”
Some of the signs of feeling burnout are fatigue, difficulty concentrating, maybe not finding enjoyment for what you do, and even having trouble sleeping. In a clinic setting, chronic stress can cause us to react to even small challenges. An example is overreacting when we can’t find scissors in the proper exam drawer, or being easily irritated in interactions with clients and co-workers. “It affects people in different ways.”
Meanwhile, the other component of compassion fatigue involves secondary traumatic stress. This is more specific to health care professionals. “It’s when we witness a traumatic experience,” Dr. Bidgood said. “We don’t experience it ourselves, but we witness it from another person or animal. As an example, as veterinarians, we euthanize animals on a regular basis. We are part of this experience and we witness the pet owner’s grief and loss associated with putting their animals down. We are part of and witness to the experience of a pet owner hearing about a diagnosis of cancer or a terminal illness. These are daily situations that we deal with as veterinarians.”
Compassion fatigue is a combination of both burnout and secondary traumatic stress. “It is hard not to take on the emotional burden and responsibility of an ill pet that we are caring for. The demands of our work over time can impact our well-being.”
Dr. Bidgood said that as an organization, Zoetis recognizes the stress and burnout in the profession, and is working to help create solutions. Zoetis is committed to three areas:
- To build awareness in the profession.
- To fund research to better understand how stakeholders, businesses, and organizations can help.
- To focus on solutions that drive impactful organizational change supporting mental health and well-being.
“I think of our support holistically,” said Dr. Bidgood. “We need to have veterinary teams healthy in order for them to take care of pets. It’s like the analogy of putting your oxygen mask on first before you can help others. We need to focus on our own well-being as a priority, so that we’re in a healthy place to help others, such as co-workers, and clients, and the pets we care for.
Zoetis is collaborating with organizations such as AAHA, AAVMC, and AVMA on supporting educational workshops, various conferences, research, and other types of programs throughout the year to help veterinarians and staff. For instance, Zoetis has partnered with the AAHA organization to develop the Beyond Medicine Workshop, virtual free webinars offered 5 different times for veterinarians and veterinary technicians. The workshop focuses on improving communications with clients and coworkers which can impact one’s well-being. The workshops also help attendees build their own well-being personal action plan so they can stay healthy and happy in the workplace. The first workshop kicked off in October, with one occurring each subsequent month. Registration is on the AAHA website, and anyone is invited to join the program.
Individual best practices
Individually, it can be hard for veterinarians and technicians to focus on their well-being because they’re so empathetic and compassionate, always focusing on the needs of others. “Because we care, we develop a bond with the pet and the pet owner,” Dr. Bidgood said. “It’s hard not to take responsibility when an animal is not feeling well. It’s also hard to find balance when the clinic is so busy and pet owners rely on the staff to be there to take care of their pets. That contributes to the burnout.”
Dr. Bidgood said the certification course highlighted several learnings that can help someone with their own well-being. You can think about these tools as developing your resiliency antibodies. If we have an infection, our body responds by building antibodies to protect us. “We need to think in the same way of building resiliency antibodies when we have emotional stress.”
One important ‘antibody’ is having a social network. This is not about having hundreds of Facebook or Instagram friends; it’s having a few people around you to provide support. Someone you can talk to, or at least know you could call and reach out to. “This has been shown to be one of the most important ways to help with stress.”
The other antibody is around relaxation, one we often forget about. “And that’s just finding a way to relax,” said Dr. Bidgood. “No one can be on the go all the time. When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system goes crazy. We’re in a fight or flight mode.”
A simple way to get out of this mode is to take a few deep breaths. “It’s called Diaphragmatic Breathing,” said Dr. Bidgood. “Taking a few deep breaths will help you get out of the fight or flight mode and back to more of a state of relaxation.” Fortunately, you can do this anywhere. You can walk into a break room, an empty exam room, or go outside. You can even do it at a red light in traffic on your way to and from work. “You just need a few moments to sit back, take a few breaths, and relax.”
Another resiliency antibody is self-care. “We all need an outlet to counteract built-up stress and frustration,” she said. “Sometimes people look for a checklist of what they should do to find well-being. It is really about what works for you and what brings you joy. It may be something active like running, hiking, or dancing, or it could be something creative like painting or drawing. Whatever it is, find what you enjoy to help recharge your batteries, so that you can focus on what’s important for you.”
Another resiliency antibody Dr. Bidgood recommends is to understand that one of the triggers of stress and burnout is feeling a lack of control. “So the more activities in our life that we can have control over, the better balance we’re going to have,” she said. Which means prioritizing. “We need to say no. We need to prioritize what’s important, and put all our energy and effort into that, rather than saying yes to everything.”