By taking steps to nurture a culture of career sustainability for both our peers and future veterinarians, we can create much-needed positive change in our profession.
Like most veterinarians, I knew what I wanted to be from a very young age. Becoming a veterinarian was never just a job, but a chance to follow my lifelong passion of caring for pets. Practicing veterinary medicine has been amazing, exhausting, exciting, stressful, invigorating, and interesting. I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t change the path I have taken. I have also seen firsthand some of the harsh realities veterinarians face in hospitals on a daily basis. Since graduating from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, I have worked in many facets of general practice, primarily in the hospital setting, and held several positions including Associate Doctor, Chief of Staff, Medical Director, and most recently, Vice President of Veterinary Relations for a veterinary practice company, Vet’s Best Friend.
Fortunately, in my current role, I have an opportunity to create positive change in our profession. Since I am no longer practicing medicine in the traditional sense, I feel a great responsibility to use my experience and knowledge in the field to create a culture of career sustainability for my peers and future veterinary medicine candidates.
WHAT CAN WE DO BETTER?
As we all know, veterinarians have an alarmingly high suicide rate. Vet school is demanding, to say the least, and anxiety is par for the course. I remember being a fresh Ross graduate, feeling proud to enter this profession but also scared, nervous, and oftentimes questioning my skills; other days I felt unstoppable and ready to take on anything and everything that came my way. Inevitably though, a few years into the career, that excitement begins to wear off. The pride we take in doing what we do is still there, of course, but so are the looming realities of stressful interactions with clients, student debt payments (in 2020, the average veterinary student debt was $188,853, with some debt as high as $500,000 according to a 2020 AVMA survey), and other overwhelming struggles due to the burnout and exhaustion of being worked too hard, too fast. We also witness the toll the profession takes on our wonderful support teams and staff, causing burnout for them as well. Add in an unprecedented global pandemic, with clients sometimes on the brink of breakdown, plus a surge in adopted pets, and a normally already stressful day seems nearly impossible.
It’s important to improve day-to-day support for veterinarians and their teams and show that a career in veterinary medicine can remain exciting and rewarding. One way to do that is to take away any external issues and stressors and remind teams of the reason they joined the industry to begin with.
PRIORITIZING WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Promoting a sound work-life balance means implementing strategies to support physical and mental health. One way to do this is to prioritize more vacation and time off by hiring extra staff via referrals, adjusting operating hours, and utilizing relief services. Another option is to make it standard practice to not see patients from 12pm to 2pm daily. This gives staff the opportunity to recharge with lunch, go outside for some fresh air, and get caught up on appointments and paperwork.
Creating wellness initiatives to help teams manage stress
These program ideas can be implemented to create a culture around employee wellness and job satisfaction:
1. Employee Assistance Program
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counselling, referrals, and follow-up services to all employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. There are third party companies that offer EAP services to small businesses and their teams.
2. Yoga and fitness classes
A veterinary technician at one of our practices offered to teach the team a weekly virtual yoga class, which included meditation and reflection. Yoga is a great way to relax and unwind after a busy day. Local gyms may also offer discounts on memberships, and you can make going to the gym a fun outing for staff, or take a class together.
3. Mental health discussions (with CE credits)
Stress is inevitable, and our teams need the tools to manage anxiety and take care of themselves outside the hospital setting. My current employer in particular offers mental health discussions across the country, with Dr. Kimberly Pope- Robinson. We encourage practices to join us for these free events, in which Dr. Pope-Robinson speaks to her experience and stress working in a clinical setting, and ways we can support ourselves and each other to create healthy boundaries and habits.
4. Veterinary social work
There are hundreds of Licensed Social Workers on https://www.psychologytoday.com/us who can help individuals in the veterinary field. One such social worker in Massachusetts visits practice teams for group therapy sessions, and gives practical tips on how team members can look out for themselves and protect their mental well-being. Some of the tips include holding a weekly staff meeting to connect, watch out for each other, and celebrate successes. She also recommends debriefing after a difficult case or situation, to feel your emotions and not let things be left unsaid. Further, she recommends that teams should focus on what they did to help the pet, instead of focusing on the past or factors that are out of their control. Group sessions with a licensed therapist are a great way to “feel your feelings” and talk through challenging situations.
FOCUSING ON FLEXIBILITY AND AUTONOMY
Another way to empower hospital leadership is to create work schedules that fit not only the needs of the practice and the community of clients, but also the employees’ lives. A huge stressor for me when I was seeing appointments daily was losing autonomy over my client schedule. This support is crucial so that employees feel supported in whatever they want to do, whether learning a demanding specialty like acupuncture, or pursuing a hobby they want to spend more time on in their personal lives. Allowing them the flexibility to structure their days around what works for the team creates the happier, healthier work environment we all strive for.
One of my passions is to mentor the next generation of veterinarians — vet med students. Along with giving pets great care, helping students is incredibly rewarding and can grow your practice and lead to career sustainability. Paid externs can observe and participate in many aspects of general practice, including surgery, medicine cases, client communication, conflict management, and leadership. We have the opportunity to learn a lot from students as they provide insight on how we can continue to focus on the needs of veterinarians and our teams in this ever-changing landscape of veterinary medicine.
Dr. Cheryl Brocki is the Chief Veterinary Officer of Vet’s Best Friend, where she focuses on team recruitment, mentorship, and professional development. She has been practicing general veterinary medicine for over 15 years, including holding Chief of Staff and Medical Director positions before joining Vet’s Best Friend. She is a graduate of the Ross School of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Massachusetts with her family and two rescue dogs: Mooloo and Moose. Her favorite part of veterinary medicine is working with veterinary students and mentoring new graduates.