Burnout and Boundaries in Veterinary Medicine

Burnout and Boundaries in Veterinary Medicine

If you’ve ever experienced burnout, you know it’s so much more than “one bad day” or “feeling stressed”. And if you work in veterinary medicine, it’s likely that you’ve experienced burnout or you know someone in the field who has experienced burnout. Burnout among veterinary professionals is a well known problem and has increased in recent years due to pandemic related restrictions and staff shortages.

In a previous blog, we shared ten ways you can care for your mental health as a veterinary professional, and today we’ll be diving deeper in to two of those ways: understanding, recognizing, and managing burnout and setting professional boundaries. We also had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Julia Morett-Vij, Family and Marriage Therapist at our May Wellness Workshop about burnout and boundaries; catch the replay here.

We have a saying here at Love Huvet: be the change you wish to see in vet med. And although there are systemic issues that our field is facing that can seem too big for one person to tackle, you have the power to create and inspire change by taking care of your mental health and advocating for yourself. In honor of Mental Health Month we wanted to give you helpful information you can use around two important aspects of mental health: navigating burnout and setting boundaries in veterinary medicine.

So let’s start with:

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, and may present itself in symptoms like:

  • feeling emotionally exhausted and drained
  • becoming cynical or detached from work
  • feeling less effective or motivated at work
  • difficulty concentrating at work
  • feelings of dissatisfaction, emptiness, hopelessness
  • increased feelings of irritability and decreased patience
  • procrastinating or “avoiding” work

Or as physical symptoms such as:

  • frequent headaches
  • muscle tension
  • nausea or stomach issues
  • decreased immunity to illness

These symptoms might seem like no big deal at first but if you or a co-worker is dealing with these symptoms for weeks, months, or even years, it can snowball into burnout, feelings of depression, or even suicide ideation / suicide. According to studies from the Center for Disease Control, one in six veterinarians have considered suicide, and the rate of suicide for veterinary professionals is 4 times the rate of the general public.

What is the burnout rate for veterinarians, vet techs, and veterinary professionals?

A recent study showed that nearly 60% of veterinarians and 75% of veterinary staff are experiencing moderate to high levels of burnout. (Merck)

And burnout among veterinary technicians is increasing steadily, due to factors like low wages and compassion fatigue amongst co-workers. 1/3 of veterinary technicians reported having a second or third job, sometimes full time, on top of their full time job at their clinic just to make ends meet, according to the AVMA. 

Boundaries and Burnout in Veterinary Medicine

Why do veterinarians, vet techs, and veterinary professionals burn out?

And why is veterinary medicine so stressful?

When you’re studying and preparing for your career in veterinary medicine, you can anticipate some of the stressors you will face. The work we do is not always easy but it is so rewarding. And for so many in veterinary medicine, this has always been our dream career — which can create an added level of pressure to love the work. But some days you won’t love the work and you’ll need to remember and lean on your why and implement some post-work self care.

Unfortunately, there are some stressors in veterinary medicine that they don’t exactly prepare you for in school or training, for example: systemic issues like staff shortages, lack of leadership in management, and low wages that result in living paycheck to paycheck. 

And there is the additional stressor of dealing with aggressive pet owners. Countless veterinary professionals have been threatened by owners over anything from protocol to expenses and the behavior has only worsened in recent years. Our jobs are hard enough without the added fear of being assaulted or worse at work.

Because YES — at its core, this profession is stressful. We are often dealing with high-stakes situations that are emotionally, physically (IYKYK), and mentally draining. We care so deeply about our patients, and even on our bad days or after being told for the 1000th time that we’re “in it for the money”, we do our best to show empathy to all pet owners even the spicy ones. We work long hours at busy clinics, sometimes not getting a break all day, and will still stay late to do everything we can for the animals who need us. 

And YES — we love it and we knew it was going to be a challenging path! But we’re human. This level of stress without an active stress management plan is a recipe for burnout. And burnout can significantly decrease your ability as a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or veterinary professional to care for your patients and do what you love.

The economic cost of burnout in veterinary medicine

When one person on the team is dealing with the symptoms of burnout, it affects the whole team. Burnout is one of the leading causes of the high turnover rate among veterinary professionals, and employee turnover not only stressful to employees, it is costly to clinics. Burnout can also affect decision making skills and result in an increase in clinical errors, another cost to clinics. According to a recent study, the industry level cost attributable to burnout in veterinary medicine is $1.075 billion.

Tips for overcoming veterinarian, vet tech, and veterinary professional burnout

When it comes to burnout, the goal is to take care of yourself before your symptoms become too difficult to manage. But what if you’re already dealing with burnout? If you’re already feeling burnt out, you need more than a day off or even a vacation. It’s important to recognize that depending on the level of burnout you’re experiencing you may need to take a step back from work entirely, seek professional help like a therapist, and/or prioritize your personal well-being over other areas of your life while you work on bouncing back from burnout.

You’re totally fresh + not dealing with any symptoms of burnout

If you’re new to vet med or returning after a long break, you may not be dealing with any symptoms of burnout yet — and that’s great! Take a proactive approach and use this time to create self-care routines and healthy habits, work on your stress management skills, and dive into your hobbies. Burnout can typically be prevented and managed with self care so make your mental health and overall wellness a habit now.

You’re starting to feel some of the symptoms of burnout but it’s manageable

The mistake that most people make when burnout starts to creep in is ignoring it and thinking it will get better on its own. It’s easy to not take these early symptoms seriously or to feel like because it’s not that bad yet that it’s not important. But as soon as you notice burnout, it’s time to take action. Talk to your work about taking a short break like a vacation or a leave of absence. Seek out a therapist or other mental health resources. Consider making a temporary change to part time or a less demanding position. Make yourself a priority and double down on your self-care routines and stress management techniques. Do whatever you need to do and don’t feel selfish about it. 

Tip: Not able to get away from work but dealing with burnout? In our recent wellness workshop with Dr. Morett-Vij, she suggested taking two to three minutes to regroup when feeling overwhelmed, even if it means pausing a non-emergency task. Try using those two to three minutes for meditation or listening to calming music, and if you need to and are able, step away from the situation until you can come back with a clear head.

Burnout and Boundaries in Vet Med

You’re dealing with total burnout

If you’re dealing with total burnout, this is a “do not pass go, do not collect $200” situation. You need a break, like yesterday. And as hard as it may be, this could mean a temporary break from veterinary medicine entirely.

Not everyone can just quit their job though. If you’re not in the place financially to take a break from working entirely, consider getting a job that is low stakes, low stress. Every job has its stressors but look for ones that won’t trigger your symptoms of burnout.

If your symptoms of burnout worsen and lead to feelings of depression, increased anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, it’s time to speak with a mental health professional. Remember, you don’t have to go through this alone and experiencing intense burnout can happen to anyone, it’s not a reflection of who you are, your worth, or your abilities.

If you are struggling with worsening symptoms of burnout, check out the resources below.

Find a Therapist: Check out BetterHelp, the world’s largest online therapy service or talk with your clinic to learn about resources that may be available for you.

AVMA Wellness Page: Resources on cyberbullying, online reputation management as well as workplace wellness programs and crisis hotlines.

Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 988 or online chat

SAMHSA: Call 1-800-662-4357

You’re bouncing back from burnout

Once you’re bouncing back from burnout, it’s important to not immediately throw yourself back into the same stressors and environment that led you to burnout. Consider taking a slow return to work, possibly starting with part time hours or a less demanding position, and then gradually increase your workload to a manageable level. You may also want to consider alternative career paths within the veterinary field or related industries that can offer a better work-life balance and reduced stress if you find your symptoms of burnout quickly returning. And of course, stay on top of your self care routines.

Setting boundaries can help with preventing burnout

Now let’s talk about boundaries. Boundaries play a big role in preventing burnout and caring for your mental health as a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or veterinary professional.

Boundaries can feel selfish or entitled if you’re not used to setting them or if someone is used to crossing your boundaries. There’s also a common misconception that boundaries are about controlling other people’s behavior, like you’re telling someone else what they are allowed to do or say.

However, boundaries are about communicating how you will respond in different situations based on your own boundary. Instead of “you can’t do xyz because that’s my boundary”, setting a boundary is saying “if xyz happens, this is how I will respond because that’s my boundary”.

And setting and enforcing your own boundaries can have a ripple effect among your entire workplace, resulting in increased productivity and happiness or even long-term effects like policy changes and shifts in how management handles different scenarios.

The key to boundaries is communication

If you want people to respect your boundaries, you have to communicate. Everyone has different boundaries so you can’t assume that your coworkers, management, etc. are fully aware of your boundaries if you haven’t clearly communicated them.

It can seem intimidating to share your boundaries, especially if setting and upholding your own boundaries is somewhat new to you. But remember that setting clear boundaries and communicating them effectively can strengthen your relationships with others and with yourself. It helps everyone stay on the same page and is a way of showing yourself respect. It doesn’t feel good when we let someone step all over and cross our boundaries. It can feel like you’re betraying yourself and lead to feelings of resentment.

It’s also a good idea to communicate your boundaries early instead of waiting to speak up when  someone starts to push or cross your boundaries. Again, it can seem intimidating to do this at first — why bring it up if it’s not a problem yet? But when you bring up your boundaries early, you can potentially prevent a problem from ever happening in the first place. Not saying that you won’t ever have someone pushing your boundaries, but you can save a lot of miscommunications by being pro-active about sharing your boundaries.

And, of course, boundaries are allowed to change. Just remember to communicate those changes clearly and as early as possible so everyone is on the same page and able to respect your boundaries.

Boundaries in Vet Med for Vet Techs

Types of boundaries to set at work as a veterinary professional

Boundaries look different for everyone but here are a few types of boundaries you may need to set at work as a veterinary professional.

Mental Boundaries: protecting your mental energy by not wasting your focus on things out of your control. One important way to practice this is by not taking your work home with you. Give it your all while you’re at work and then put it away when it’s time to go home. PS: a helpful way to get everything off your chest after a long day is with the Vet Med Wellness Journal.

Time Management: we all have those busy days where we barely get to take a break but allocating time for breaks, rest, and personal activities is key to preventing burnout and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. If your clinic is too busy to allow for 15-30 minute breaks throughout your shift, first check your company policy and/or local + state labor laws to understand what you’re entitled to and then speak with management about creating a plan of action that allows for everyone to get their required + necessary breaks. And then be mindful about how you use your breaks — practice mental boundaries during your down time so that your break actually feels like a break. This can be especially difficult for veterinary professionals and the nature of veterinary medicine but try to keep in mind that caring for yourself allows you to better care for your patients. You can’t fill from an empty cup!

Workload Management: workload management is important because there’s a difference between “having a full plate” and an unrealistic workload. With many clinics and animal hospitals facing staff shortages, many veterinary professionals are being forced to “pick up the slack” at their workplace to compensate for understaffing. This can lead to an unrealistic workload — and a fast track to burnout. If you’re dealing with an unrealistic workload, communicate with leadership or management. It can also be helpful to have a full understanding of your scope of work / work responsibilities so you know what tasks or types of tasks you should be handling. You may also choose to delegate tasks, ask for help, and prioritize your responsibilities to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Emotional Boundaries: one of the ways burnout can start to creep in is alongside something called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to an inability to empathize or feel compassion for others. Because our jobs require us to maintain empathy even on our worst days, this is an important type of boundary for veterinarians, vet techs, and veterinary professionals to set. The nature of our job can also result in feelings of “did I do enough” and many veterinary professionals carry unnecessary guilt for things that happened at work that were beyond their control. This can result in emotional exhaustion and feelings of imposter syndrome. Develop strategies (on your own, with peers, or with a therapist) that help you understand and work through your emotions.

Personal boundaries for veterinary professionals

If you’ve ever received a text or message on Instagram asking for veterinary advice, you know that setting personal boundaries as a veterinary professional is just as important as setting professional boundaries. Again, it can feel awkward at first to tell your Aunt or that friend from college that they should talk to their vet instead of coming to you for advice but hopefully you’ll only need to set this boundary once (per person). Consider writing out a template response that you can keep in your notes app on your phone so you can easily copy + paste anytime you get one of those messages and don’t want to or simply can’t deal with it.

How to set professional boundaries in veterinary medicine

Time to set some boundaries, but where do you start? Remember that boundaries are personal and will be different for everyone so the first thing you’ll want to do is recognize your emotions + set your priorities. You could set 1000 boundaries but if you’re not focusing on the stuff that matters to you, setting boundaries won’t do you much good. If there’s a particular area or situation that is causing you continued frustration or affecting your mental health, that’s a good place to start.

Next, it’s a good idea to examine your workload and responsibilities plus any accommodations or workplace policies available to you. You want to be sure that you’re setting realistic boundaries and the best way to do this is to have a thorough understanding of what’s expected from your role and/or the policies in place to protect employees. Once you have the full picture of what’s required from both you as an employee and your employer, you can determine whether you’ll be able to set certain boundaries.

If you have a boundary that is a deal breaker (aka you’re not willing to budge on it) and your workplace has conflicting policies in place, consider speaking with management. Maybe there is room to compromise or maybe you’ll find that you need to transition to another workplace that can respect your non-negotiable boundaries.

Now that you have a good idea of what you feel isn’t working and what’s required of you, you can start creating your boundaries. Remember: boundaries are not about controlling another person’s behavior. You can try to set those kind of boundaries all day long but it probably won’t get you very far. The only person you can control is yourself so focus on setting boundaries that help you navigate situations.

For example, let’s say you need to put up a boundary around answering work texts when you are off work. You can’t stop your co-workers and management from texting you on your days off (unless you block their number... haha … just kidding). But you can put up a boundary that you will not be reading or responding to work texts when you are off work or that you will only respond during certain times. That’s a boundary that explains how you will react to a certain scenario — and that’s a boundary you can control.

Once you’ve figured out which boundaries you are going to set, it’s a good idea to communicate those boundaries with anyone who needs to know them. Communicate your boundaries clearly and remember that the boundary is around your behavior, not theirs. “You can text me when I’m off work but I won’t be able to respond until 5PM most days.”

Or in a situation like this, you may also want to work together on finding an alternative like: “I have a boundary around answering work texts when I’m off work. Instead of texting me, could you leave me a note at the front desk that I can read at my next shift?” Remember to stay firm but considerate when explaining your boundary, and you do not need to justify or over-explain the reasons for your boundary.

You’ll likely get some push back depending on your boundaries, sometimes accidental but sometimes intentional. Be prepared to stand your ground and act according to the boundary that you’ve set for yourself. And practice what you preach. If you want people to respect your boundaries, show them the same respect.

Proactive vs Reactive

In conclusion, one of the most important things veterinarians, vet techs, and veterinary professionals can do to protect their mental health is be proactive about setting boundaries and knowing how to recognize and overcome burnout. You don’t want to wait until you’re dealing with a difficult situation to look for resources or build out a plan. And when you take responsibility for your mental health as a veterinary professional you are able to not only give better care to your patients but you are also able to inspire change in our industry to make it a better place for future veterinary professionals. Being the change in veterinary medicine starts with you.

If you enjoyed this blog post about burnout and boundaries in veterinary medicine, share it with your community or send it to a friend in vet med.


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