Burnout is caused by a mismatch between a veterinarian and his or her work environment. Considering a range of factors, including workload, rewards, and values, helps foster job satisfaction and emotional well-being.
In 2021, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 44% of veterinarians considered leaving the profession. More alarmingly, 25% are seriously considering making this move. This is an ominous sign, especially in a profession that has always attracted numerous people to its ranks, even when veterinary salaries have
historically been lower than those of other professions. And with a surge in consumer demand for veterinary care, the problem continues to grow. At the heart of the issue is what has been characterized as veterinarian job burnout.
Studies from Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter reveal that burnout results from a mismatch between employees and their work environment, including workload, control, rewards, community, fairness and values. In veterinary medicine, the approach to these areas has been inconsistent.
A workload mismatch occurs when the veterinarian’s workload exceeds their capacity to both physically and mentally keep up with it. In a veterinary role, the focus is often placed on the time needed to serve patients, versus the additional time veterinarians need to deal with emotionally draining situations. Practice owners try to further leverage their veterinarians with the use of support staff, while misunderstanding the pressure veterinarians experience in making decisions about their patients’ care. As more support staff are hired, the more decisions a veterinarian has to make on any particular workday.
Obviously, some decisions regarding patient care are weightier than others. Solutions should be reached by examining the overall weight of decisions made on a particular day, and how best to organize them to allow for recovery time.
While control and structure are important from the practice owner’s point of view, it is necessary to understand how workplace decisions will affect the veterinarians themselves.
Veterinarians often have different expectations in terms of decision-making. (Should the vet be responsible? What about the practice owner or pet owner?) At the outset, a veterinarian’s responsibilities within a practice should be clearly outlined to cover which decisions they will be making. Role ambiguity leads to both conflict and a perceived lack of control. This can result in job dissatisfaction and a feeling of helplessness.
If the veterinarian is experiencing a lack of control, it is important to tackle this head-on and with the practice owner. Discuss and agree upon individual responsibilities before the work starts. A straightforward plan regarding day-to-day activities will help things run smoothly.
The rewards of being a veterinarian are both tangible and intangible. Tangible rewards can be identified as a pay raise or an increase in benefits. Intangible rewards can be a simple “thank you” from a client or praise from the practice owner for a job well done. In today’s labor environment, tangible rewards are being negotiated more and more to the veterinarian’s benefit. However, if other areas are not addressed (responsibilities, workload, etc.) the rewards can just be considered as compensation for a difficult job.
Practice owners must look at all areas of reward, based on merit, practice growth and more. Examining what a veterinarian needs versus what they want is also key. For example, giving a veterinarian an office day with no patients may be more valuable to job retention than granting a day off. Rethinking an individual veterinarian’s needs can help more vets stay in the profession, and help a practice succeed.
Innovating Veterinary Care to Prevent Burnout
In business, if there is not a solution now, one will be found or subsequently created. Remaining optimistic about the veterinary profession is easy. In the veterinary industry, all stakeholders are well aligned. The fundamental tenets of our mission are so genuine: to provide compassionate care to animals and peace of mind to clients. The various facets of employee burnout research can help us identify areas of opportunity for sustaining the current veterinarian workforce.
Looking at workload, veterinary business models are coming out that focus on more specialized parts of general practice. Some veterinarians focus on providing in-home hospice and euthanasia. Others only do general surgery within a practice. Veterinarians
can now find positions in which they do not have to perform surgery, but can still provide preventive and minor ailment care. Some practices focus on urgent care while referring out more serious emergency care.
As far as control is concerned, national relief veterinary agencies are springing up that allow veterinarians to set their own schedules. Some groups even auction off shifts to the lowest bidder. Non-veterinarian ownership has also increased, allowing veterinarians to be
more in control of patient care as their employers are not medical care experts.
The community as represented by both the veterinary practice staff and the clients they serve is very important when it comes to overall job satisfaction. Developing a trusting, open environment is key to creating a positive team culture.
Veterinarians need to feel supported by their team, especially when a patient case takes a downturn. In addition, social media is now a voice for the community. Mentoring veterinarians on how to handle social media, especially in terms of client reviews, can help foster resiliency in this area.
The perception of fairness in how decisions are made at a veterinary practice has a significant effect on employee burnout. The veterinarian may not like a decision that was
made; however, if it is perceived that it was made in a fair, equitable way, the negative impact of the decision is lessened.
Fairness also matters in how individual team members are treated — whether related to the vets themselves or to other team members. Practice owners can continue to foster an open atmosphere by discussing decisions and current challenges at regular staff meetings.
One cannot overemphasize the importance of running a veterinary practice based on values. Most practices have missions and goals for their organization, but these are not always identified and used consistently within the team or with the client community.
Practice owners — with the help of their teams — should create a list of values and corresponding value statements. For example, our values at PetWellClinic® are openness,
community, service, growth and kindness. We hire based on these values. All decisions about processes and systems are made with these values in mind. Vet practices will do
themselves a great service by creating a team of individuals who truly live the values laid out by the practice owners.
WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A VETERINARIAN?
Though it might initially be hard to see, veterinarians have access to many tools for combatting burnout. You can exert control over your workload by learning to delegate decisions to support staff, and setting up tools for decision-making when appropriate. Giving up control in some areas can lead to more control of your personal workload. Being open to new ideas will create a united team, focused on making the workday productive for everyone at the practice.
Practice owners want you to advocate for your salary and benefits. As a veterinarian, it is important to know that all economic rewards ultimately need to be paid for.
If you are offered an enormous salary by a practice, make sure you feel up to the workload that will be expected of you. Efficiencies in a practice will help you as well. Newer veterinary business models make it easier for you to deliver the workload necessary to support a higher reward at a lower emotional cost. Look for these models — your team will thank you.
The idea of community culture is more within your control than you think. If you’re experiencing a toxic work culture where people are being negative, it can “infect” others. Veterinarians are very empathic people, so if someone is sharing their thoughts about a fellow employee or a bad interaction with a client, it can rub off on a normally positive person. However, when employees deal with each other directly, a culture of trust is created.
Fairness and values are also important. Most instances of “perceived unfairness” might be a misunderstanding. Communication is always key.
Asking the practice owner about how a decision was made may bring resolution. Using permission-based questions such as, “May I ask how that decision was made?” rather than, “Why did you make that decision?” will help keep the lines of communication open and impact office culture in a positive way. If your practice does not specify its values, start a discussion to solidify these ideals among the staff, with the permission of the practice owner. The goal of the practice is to serve animals and their owners. In order to do so, the practice must function as a team, with members looking out for one another in challenging situations, and offering solutions.
WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A PRACTICE OWNER?
From the practice owner point of view, understanding the emotional impact of your veterinarians’ workload is key. You may have the most highly-skilled support staff, but your
veterinarians may have a maximum number of patients they can personally “handle” before needing to pause and regroup. It is worth noting that ten very ill patient case workups will be much more taxing than 20 wellness appointments.
Control matters in areas that directly affect the veterinarian’s personal life. Both weekly shift schedules and daily shift duties should be set with all needs taken into consideration.
Solidify processes for schedule creations and time off requests, and how these will be communicated. Make it very clear how scheduling and workload decisions are made so there are no surprises.
Rewarding associates for a job well done is a great way to show your gratitude to practice staff. The practice owner has a responsibility to look for innovative ways to reward associates, both tangible and intangible. Individual compliments about patient care are very motivating. Reading positive online reviews at a team meeting is always fun and gets to the core purpose behind every pet visit.
You can create a positive work culture by modeling behavior you want to see. Learn about your team members directly, not through second-hand knowledge or a misstep in their work. Trust your team members. Identify your practice values and live by them: every single day.
Finally, practice owners are not always the most popular people, but they must embody the qualities of a fair and supportive leader.
Though mistakes have been made and some veterinarians will decide to leave the industry for various reasons, practice owners and current staff must keep moving forward. The focus on personal versus monetary values will continue to impact practices and veterinary teams in new ways. The traditional idea of a veterinary practice will continue to change, so now is the perfect time to introduce new processes and new team members to an evergreen business.
1 JAVMA News. (2021, December 01). Fierce competition over veterinary labor. https://www.avma.org/javma-
2 Leiter MP, Maslach C. Six areas of worklife: a model of the organizational context of burnout. J Health Hum
Serv Adm. 1999;21(4):472-489.
Dr. Sam Meisler, DVM is the founder and CEO of PetWellClinic, an innovative walk-in veterinary franchise system offering general primary care and vaccinations for pets. Meisler grew up in East Africa where he was immersed in both wildlife and domestic animals. Based in Knoxville, TN, he owns and operates two full-service animal hospitals and four PetWellClinics. His wife, Julie, keeps him grounded and focused on what is important. He has two wonderful adult children and his own ‘menagerie’ of pets.