In Pursuit of Well-Being for Veterinary Professionals

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COVID-19 is testing everyone’s spirit, including that of your customers.

COVID-19 is testing everyone’s spirit, including that of your customers.  By Mark Thill

Old ways are being tested, revenue models rewritten, and work routines upended by COVID-19. Veterinarians – many of whom were already experiencing burnout, depression and high rates of suicide – are feeling the pressure.


The good news is, today’s professionals appear more willing and able to pursue “well-being” for themselves and team members. Sales reps can help by bringing to their customers – with sensitivity – what one expert calls “contagious energy.”

“A number of veterinary professionals around the country have indicated that this has been a time of meaningful personal and professional reflection for them,” said Dr. Jen Brandt, director of member well-being and diversity for the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Many have shared that current circumstances have served as a wake-up call to take a closer look at what was and wasn’t working for them both at home and in their professional lives.” Brandt was named AVMA’s first-ever director of well-being and diversity in 2017.

“I’ve heard from several leaders in veterinary medicine that they [believe] a state of well-being – whether for a team or an individual – is an ongoing, dynamic process rather than a fixed endpoint; a marathon, not a sprint; and [something] that requires the input of a diverse range of voices and perspectives.”

Said Lisa Stewart-Brown, program manager, mental health and well-being, Banfield Pet Hospital, “The veterinary profession is filled with many rewards, but it also comes with great emotional challenges. The daily pace is fast, unpredictable, and the range of emotions can be vast – from dealing with emotional and sometimes traumatic situations with pets that might have been abused or neglected, to entering an exam room to meet a family’s first puppy, to experiencing the grief that comes with end-of-life care for a pet you’ve known for its entire life.

“When you add a global pandemic into the mix, feelings of compassion fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, and exhaustion can become exacerbated.”

What’s the problem?

The most recent Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Well-being Study, conducted in the fall of 2019, revealed that:

  • Veterinarians experience higher rates of burnout than physicians.
  • Younger veterinarians are, on average, more likely to rate their well-being lower than older ones.
  • Veterinarians are more than 2.7 times more likely than non-veterinarians to attempt suicide.
  • Forty-three percent would not recommend that people enter the profession.

“In light of the current data, we have an unwell profession, but this also opens up opportunities to create serious change,” said Makenzie Peterson, MSc, director for well-being for the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

The problem is multidimensional, said Dr. Christine Royal, director, veterinary professional services, U.S. Equine and Companion Animal Business Unit, Merck Animal Health. Veterinarians experiencing burnout are more likely to identify themselves as having a poor work/life balance, she said. Some fail to find their work invigorating, or they may be experiencing conflict with co-workers. Student debt – no matter the amount – is also a factor, particularly for younger veterinarians.

Personality type plays a role, said Royal. People who tend to focus on negative experiences or events are more likely to experience psychological distress than those who don’t. Female veterinarians are at higher risk than males. “As more females enter the profession, this is something we need on the radar.” Add to that COVID-19.

Talk it over

“What I consistently hear is, people are tired,” said Royal. Veterinarians and their teams are dealing with the demands of curbside service, heavy patient loads, and the ever-present risk of contracting COVID-19 from clients and co-workers.

“Right now, we need to be cognizant about checking in on each other regularly,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re setting aside time for ourselves – even if it’s just three minutes a day – to do some breathing exercises and call to mind three things we need to do in order to take care of ourselves.

“Anything we can do to encourage people to talk about this in the practice will help,” she added. Asking people to share their thoughts on “What do we want our culture of well-being to be?” opens the door for discussion. “And I think veterinarians are more comfortable having that conversation today.”

“My hope is that as a result of this pandemic, we as a profession continue to have tough conversations to remove stigmas associated with mental health topics,” said Stewart-Brown. Banfield believes professional health and well-being rest on five pillars – mind, body, finances, community and career. In 2019, the company announced “ASK” – Assess, Support, Know – a suicide-prevention training program for veterinary professionals. In addition, Banfield’s Health & Well-being team created “Leading in Uncertain Times,” a series of workshops on topics ranging from re-establishing personal boundaries to prioritizing health and well-being, she explained.

A new culture

Burnout is a two-sided coin. On one side is the individual, on the other are the systems in which he or she operates, including home, family, and workplace.

“It has been my experience in working with veterinary students and veterinary professionals that it’s much less about how well-equipped individuals are in terms of recognizing and dealing with burnout, and much more about which systemic factors create the greatest burdens on individuals and teams,” said Brandt, who worked with The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine for 20 years prior to joining AVMA.

“If recognizing and dealing with burnout at the individual level were a panacea, we’d have far fewer veterinary professionals in distress, because access to training on topics such as burnout is widely available in colleges, national conferences, and on digital platforms. What’s less widely available – and far more difficult to implement – are solutions that address systemic barriers to well-being.”

More and more veterinary teams and organizations recognize the role of the organization on the health of individuals, rather than viewing the individual’s well-being entirely separately from the culture of the workplace, she said. Organizations have greater awareness of the role that diversity, inclusion and equity play in helping individuals and work cultures thrive.

Thriving teams tend to have strong communication systems to disseminate information and obtain feedback from team members about what is and isn’t working, added Brandt. They also have a strong sense of camaraderie. “That doesn’t mean that everyone on the team is your best friend, but there’s demonstrated cultural competency, a respect for and celebration of differences, and an overall sense of belonging within the team.”

“Quality work starts with being healthy and energized,” said Stewart-Brown. “I often hear from people that they don’t think they have time to take care of themselves, but you must create the culture in your organization that values health and well-being. I also believe that offering hope, help and optimism are powerful antidotes to stress and burnout.”

The sales rep

Anything sales reps can do to boost morale among practices will have a positive impact, said Royal. For example, reps should take time to identify – perhaps from Facebook – something specific the clinic is doing, and then thank the team for going above and beyond. Offering healthy treats is another way to boost spirits. “And the last piece is, work with your manufacturing partners, such as Merck Animal Health, who have a tremendous number of tools with which to partner with distributors.”

Said Stewart-Brown, “During the pandemic, veterinary professionals might be experiencing higher-than-usual levels of stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout. [Sales reps] should stay attuned to any new protocols or processes the hospital has in place. Additionally, some hospitals might be busier than ever, so be mindful that response times might be slower than usual.

“Statements or acts of appreciation can go a long way to help energize hospital associates and build stronger working relationships.”

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

Feelings of apathy and isolation are at the top of the list of symptoms of compassion fatigue. But they are far from the only ones. This insidious disorder can cause problems both psychological and physical. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:

  • Bottled-up emotions
  • Sadness and apathy
  • Inability to get pleasure from activities that previously were enjoyable
  • Isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling mentally and physically tired
  • Chronic physical ailments
  • Voicing excessive complaints about your job, your manager(s) and/or co-workers
  • Lack of self-care, including poor hygiene and a drop-off in your appearance
  • Recurring nightmares or flashbacks
  • Substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors such as over-eating or gambling

Source: AVMA website

Resources:

Veterinary Well-being (Merck Animal Health)vetwellbeing.com

Well-being Resource Center (VetFolio and Boehringer Ingelheim) vetfolio.com/pages/resource-center-wellbeing

Well-being, American Veterinary Medical Association avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing

Photo of two veterinary nurses representative of veterinary professional well-being.

Tomorrow’s compassionate leaders

Burnout isn’t reserved for veteran doctors and team members. It affects young people too. That’s why educators are addressing the issue with students in veterinary school, not only through curriculum offerings and suicide hotlines but by creating environments that put a premium on the well-being of students, staff, and faculty. The hope is, students can apply the lessons they learn in medical school to their personal and professional lives.

“The students our member institutions train today will be the compassionate leaders of veterinary medicine in the future,” said Makenzie Peterson, MSc, director for well-being for the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. “We want all members of the veterinary profession to be active contributors for as long as they would like to be, not for as long as they can endure.”

Peterson was named AAVMC’s first-ever director for well-being in April 2020. Prior to that, she was the well-being program director at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Prior to Peterson joining AAVMC, the association created a competency-based medical curriculum, one competency of which addresses professionalism and professional identity. This competency includes attending to the well-being of self and others, and emphasizes:

  • Recognizing sources of workplace stress and taking action to remedy adverse situations.
  • Recognizing signs of stress in oneself and colleagues.
  • Engaging in self-care and recognizing when professional help is appropriate for self or others.

Learning medical skills is, of course, a must, said Peterson. But are veterinary students also learning how to navigate conflict or set boundaries for themselves and others? Are they cultivating enough self-awareness to know when to reach out for help? Are they learning how to manage the expectations of society based on the “Dr.” in front of their names? Are they learning about bias and inclusion? Can the profession grow and expand accommodations for people who might have been stigmatized or excluded in the past, such as those with invisible disabilities (i.e. learning disabilities or chronic mental health concerns)?

“We need to step back and take a wider, more inclusive view, of who can be part of this profession, and how to help them be successful,” she said. “‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ is an old adage no longer serving our students, our clinicians, or the profession. It’s exciting that there are more opportunities and a greater willingness to think creatively about solving some of the profession’s most dynamic issues.”

1-Photo Credit:  istockphoto.com/aydinmutlu

2-Photo credit: istockphoto.com/SeventyFour