The COVID-19 pandemic has had disastrous effects on mental health on a global scale and within the veterinary field. However, mental health concerns, such as burnout and compassion fatigue, have posed a significant burden to veterinary professionals long before the pandemic.
The veterinary field often attracts individuals with high levels of empathy, compassion, and a drive to help others. While veterinary professionals generally report high levels of job satisfaction, repeated exposure to stress and traumatic events can lead to mental and emotional strain, especially when not properly managed.
Studies have shown that mental health illnesses present themselves at a disproportionately high rate among veterinary nurses and practitioners leading to a suicide rate of nearly four times that of the general public. In addition to the negative effects on the individual’s personal and professional wellbeing, burnout and compassion fatigue can inhibit the provision of quality care to patients and clients.
Compassion Fatigue is a type of physical and emotional exhaustion that leads to a reduced capacity to empathize after being repeatedly exposed to stress associated with helping others through distress and trauma.
Burnout is a type of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Burnout is beyond the point of compassion fatigue and is often associated with feelings of work-related inadequacy and hopelessness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed staff at all levels of the veterinary practice to support patients and clients through creative problem solving. From unprecedented caseloads to new safety protocols, COVID-19 has led to innovations in practice operations throughout the industry. However, these rapid changes (in additional to other pandemic-related stressors) are increasing levels of burnout.
The initial wave of crisis response and altruism quickly faded into wide-spread exhaustion over the course of the pandemic. Living day-to-day in “survival mode” has become the norm. This mindset can diminish the sense of community that is necessary to establish a fulfilling work environment.
Supporting wellbeing in the workplace is crucial for the practice’s success and the health of team members. There are many strategies that can be adopted by independent practice leaders to assist in minimizing burnout, including:
- Empowering employees
- Delegating tasks evenly and reducing tasks that don’t improve patient care
- Improving the use of IT in the practice
- Reducing stigma and utilizing mental health services
For more mental health resources, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association’s wellbeing resources page.