Since the pandemic, more attention has been drawn to the tough working conditions our healthcare workers endure. This is so important! There’s just one problem. Veterinary medicine has been overlooked, yet again.
Consider the advocacy campaign recently launched by FIGS, a popular scrubs brand worn and loved by human and veterinary medical professionals alike. Their campaign calls attention to the poor working conditions and systemic issues in healthcare, referencing what the U.S. Surgeon General called a “longstanding crisis of burnout, exhaustion, and moral distress.”
These problems are real – but veterinary professionals are afflicted by these same issues, and yet they are noticeably absent from the recent FIGS campaign. The faces of the campaign are all MDs, PAs, RNs – all human medical professionals. Their promotional video depicts human patients, but not animal patients. FIGS’ fight for change is honorable, and one we support. But they’ve forgotten the veterinary professionals from whose loyalty they profit.
Representation matters. The suffering of veterinary professionals is rarely seen or acknowledged at the societal level. When people think about healthcare workers, they think human medicine. The idea that veterinary professionals aren’t healthcare workers is further reinforced by businesses who offer “healthcare worker discounts,” but say animal health doesn’t count. While some companies like Peloton have changed their tune, many continue to define health professionals as human-only.
Veterinary professionals are healthcare workers too. Full stop. We rely on them not only for the health of our beloved furry companions, but also to aid in public health and ensure the safety of our food chain.
When our society dismisses them as less than, it allows the harsh working conditions in the veterinary field to continue and can heighten their suffering.
For anyone who thinks veterinary professionals don’t have it bad, consider these statistics:
- Mental health: Vet med has the highest rates of depression and suicide out of any profession. A study published in the American Veterinary Medical Association found that one in six vets consider suicide. Repeated exposure to death and suffering is one factor – but veterinary professionals are also struggling due to the way they’re treated. In a 2021 survey, 66 percent of vets in small animal practice said that they had been on the receiving end of abusive, aggressive or threatening behavior from pet-owning clients. And 82 percent said they were aware of abuse directed at other veterinary team members. Then there’s the problem of toxicity among staff members. One survey found that more than 60 percent of veterinary professionals reported incidences of bullying in their practices.
- Debt & compensation: Contrary to popular belief, veterinary professionals are not in it for the money – more often, they’re drowning in student debt. The average cost of veterinary med school is more than $200,000 (comparable to human medical school), yet veterinarians have half the earning potential of their human-health counterparts. Veterinary technicians, who are the nursing equivalent in veterinary medicine, are paid an average of $18 an hour.
- Working conditions: Like any healthcare job, veterinary care can be hazardous. We aren’t just talking about getting bitten on the job (although, that happens routinely). Prolonged stress and compassion fatigue are ever-present, and vets constantly face unsustainable workloads that make a healthy work/life balance difficult. The pet boom during the pandemic only heightened the strain on veterinary workers. Hours have gotten longer and demand for care has been relentless. A recent survey found that a startling 87 percent of US veterinarians had ProQOL (professional quality of life) burnout scores in the moderate to high range. Many professionals have left the field. Veterinary turnover is higher for veterinary technicians than for physicians, nurse practitioners, and even registered nurses (source: National Healthcare Retention Report). High turnover has led to a shortage of experienced professionals, which makes things even worse for those left behind.
I was first exposed to the issues facing the veterinary community while working as a practice manager for a private animal hospital in Hershey, PA. I observed first-hand the staffing issues clinics were facing, and I began to get a sense of where it was coming from: a real lack of respect for professional veterinary staff.
We need to start valuing the well-being and happiness of veterinary workers. There’s a mentality among more seasoned veterinarians and practice owners that tough working conditions and lack of boundaries are “part of the job.”
It's time to stop acting like suffering is a rite of passage in vet med. We can be better. Our veterinary professionals deserve better.
That realization (and the inability to find anyone doing anything about it) is why I started IndeVets in the first place – to give veterinary professionals a new work option, where their needs were prioritized and valued.
Changing the culture of vet med requires systemic changes. Here’s what that looks like to me:
- Allowing vets more flexibility in their work – the hours, the days, the job
- Elevating clinical standards so all veterinarians feel empowered to practice gold standard medicine
- Talking openly about mental health and providing resources for support, including access to professionals such as veterinary social workers
- Creating strict boundaries for professional staff so they only work the hours they have agreed to and can plan their work around their lives and not the other way around
- Ending the practice of unpaid overtime that leads to career burnout
- Offering robust benefits that encourage vets to take care of themselves in body & mind
- Enforcing a “No Jerks” policy – Bullying has no place in vet med.
The AVMA reports that 40% of veterinarians are considering leaving the profession.
It’s incredibly important that we address these issues before it’s too late and skilled, compassionate veterinary workers get fed up - and leave the industry forever.
Veterinary care workers have consistently stepped up to the plate and helped the most vulnerable members of our families, even at great physical and mental cost to themselves. Now it’s time for us to step up and advocate for them.