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IndeVets Blog

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October 22, 2020

How COVID amplifies burnout in vets, plus 4 tips for maintaining well-being (from a veterinary life coach!)

By Andrew Heller, DVM

In a recent informal survey on Facebook’s NOMV group, veterinarians were asked: What 3 things do you think contribute most to burnout at work? Over 200 veterinarian responded, and these were the most common answers given:

  1. My boss, my boss, my boss (sorry guys)
  2. Poor management
  3. Inability to say “no”
  4. Overscheduling, understaffing, resulting in inability to provide optimal medical care
  5. “Stupid people”
  6. Lack of control over one’s time
  7. Not feeling appreciated; No support from boss or staff
  8. Toxic clients – overdemanding and rude; emotional blackmail
  9. No breaks – too much overtime, not enough vacation
  10. Being underpaid

There has been so much written about the topic of burnout in the veterinary industry over the past several years, but since COVID-19 has entered our lives, this phenomenon has taken on a whole new form. I believe it’s important that we recognize that although they share the basic root causes, COVID burnout is not the same as pre-COVID burnout. I have personally seen it amplified over the past several months, not only with doctors applying to join IndeVets, but with doctors on our own team.

Combatting compassion fatigue and decision fatigue

The answers to the survey question above are reasons people quit their jobs, but we’ve long known that the main contributors to burnout are compassion fatigue and decision fatigue.

Veterinarians are often faced with life or death decisions for animals that cannot speak for themselves and with owners that cannot always afford the required treatment to heal or save their pets. This issue hasn’t significantly changed during the COVID era, but the fundamental interactions between veterinarians and pet owners have.

I sat down with life coach, Kevin Cornelio (Vets for Life), who specializes in helping veterinarians cope with some of these issues. He reminded me that compassion fatigue is caused by stress from “other people’s (or our patient’s) pain” and the pressures that arise from those interactions or lack thereof.

As the survey highlights, most practices today are busier than ever, understaffed for their demand, and concerned about the physical risks of interactions between staff and clients, and interactions with pets. These circumstances are not amenable to building relationships, which is fundamental to a veterinarian’s ability to be an effective caregiver.

Limiting face to face interactions via curbside medicine prevents a veterinarian from connecting with their clients, empathizing and readying body language, and often prevents them from understanding the case in a holistic way. Making decisions when the client is out of the room exacerbates decision fatigue. Remember that clients are also under more pressure and anxiety these days, and with the increased volume of cases, these issues are being magnified.

Cornelio says the normal ability to reach compassion satisfaction relies on our ability to portray empathy, which is difficult to do on a phone call or in a brief conversation through a car window. What else would we expect other than burnout?

Thankfully, he provided some helpful tips on how to combat this with the goal of enabling us to achieve success and fulfillment.

4 tips to avoiding burnout

There is little doubt that COVID burnout may be the worst kind veterinarians have had to deal with, but the first step is understanding the root cause, and dealing with it before it consumes you.

Andrew Heller, DVM is Chief Growth Officer of IndeVets.

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