Black and white headshot of Dave Shuey
Words by:
Dave Shuey — IndeVets Veterinarian Social Worker

Veterinary burnout

There’s a difference between just pointing out a problem and stepping into the heart of it to make real changes. What do we do when we realize that our work environment is making us sick? In veterinary medicine, the term “burnout” has been thoroughly studied, debated, understood, misunderstood, ignored, and profited from depending upon one’s perspective and motivation. This attention is justified since the challenges and resulting impact have gotten out of control in the veterinary industry. Few have been brave enough to confront the idea head on: burnout is not something that is wrong with a person, but something that happens to a person. My own definition comes from years of observation and working within this high achieving and vulnerable population:

Burnout is the result of chronically being forced to work beyond human capabilities.

IndeVets is using science backed, proven tools to assess their ability to bring tangible and lasting improvements to the quality of life of our staff, and the hospitals we work with. It’s how we talk the talk AND, walk the walk. Not just pointing out the problem but also, stepping into it and wrestling it down to the ground.


Measuring Burnout

In a previous blog I wrote about the value of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) – considered the “gold standard” for measuring burnout, and Areas of Worklife (AWS) Survey. Simply put, the MBI/AWS measures two things:

  1. Burnout, which is evaluated in three areas: Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization (in both, a high score is equal to more burnout), and Personal Accomplishment (a high score equals less burnout). It does this by asking questions about the frequency of work experiences that affect each of these three areas.
  2. Work-Life fit, which assesses a person’s agreement with organizational aspects of workload, fairness, control, reward, community, and values that they encounter in the work environment. It measures exposure to the causes and drivers of burnout symptoms.

Over the past year, I have been offering the MBI/AWS to new hires to assess the level of burnout they experienced prior to joining IndeVets. The survey is then issued again six months after working as an IndeVet. The survey is offered, never mandated, and the results are always anonymized. We have had two cohorts so far complete both the initial eval and the follow up surveys.

We’re monitoring early trends in terms of the profiles calculated by each survey. For example, in the MBI, an “Engaged” profile reflects relatively lower levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and higher levels of personal accomplishment. Conversely, the “Burnout” profile shows higher exhaustion and depersonalization with lower personal accomplishment.


Improving Mental Health in Vet Med; One Vet at a Time

The results to date have told an incredible story. Among the cohorts that completed both the baseline and recheck, burnout profiles decreased from 39% to 4%, and “engaged” profiles increased from 9% to 53%. Importantly, scores for Personal Accomplishment – the factor that reduces burnout – increased to 74%. Respondents reported more experiences of job satisfaction, surpassing the 70% reported by the MBI’s dataset.

The AWS results show similar trends in agreement with areas of work-life. The following reflects “good fit” with each of these six areas prior to joining our organization and the change after a 6-month period with IndeVets:

  1. Workload: 13% to 39%
  2. Control: no change
  3. Fairness: 18% to 70%
  4. Community: 22% to 29%
  5. Reward: 35% to 78%
  6. Values 31% to 78%

The results of this survey are an important reminder that veterinary medicine may never lose its tendency to push a person beyond their capabilities. It’s easy to prescribe self-care as the cure for burnout. But that puts the burden of solving the problem squarely on the shoulders of individual employees. So, I remind you where we started, burnout is not something that is wrong with a person, it is something that happens to a person. It is therefore incumbent upon an organization’s leadership to understand the effects of the environment it creates to address the root causes of burnout and respond with meaningful action.


Organizational Reflection, And Action, for Positive Change

The MBI/AWS is a powerful touchpoint for individual and organizational self-reflection. If leaders have the courage to listen and respond to the data as we have, just think of how much better it will be for the entire industry.

IndeVets was built upon the mission to bring balance, fulfillment and joy to veterinary medicine. We know the task is mighty and will take much more than our sincere efforts alone. Regardless, we do believe that we can, and more importantly, that we ARE making a difference to improve the lives of veterinarians. We will continue to advocate tirelessly, ensuring veterinarians have the recognition, support, and appreciation they deserve to feel better within themselves and in their relationship with work. Working together to build a thriving, successful and happy community.