How To Deal With Veterinary Worker Burnout

Mar 1, 2023

In a post-COVID world, dealing with veterinary worker burnout is a necessity in order to take care of veterinary hospital team members and retain them as part of the veterinary team. While burnout was an issue prior to COVID, the pressures of the pandemic took their total on veterinary team members at all levels.

In recent workplace surveys conducted for clients, I asked their teams what they would change about their workplace. Answers included:

  • “Better work/life balance”
  • “My schedule; shorter hours would really help my home life”
  • “Facilitating a better schedule that allows everyone to take lunch breaks”
  • “We are overburdened and underappreciated”
  • “I feel micromanaged; there needs to be more trust in staff”
  • “Better role definition”
  • “Explain why things are done and how I can implement them into my work”
  • “Pay me more”

What do these statements have in common? They are known causes contributing to burnout. Burnout is a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” (Source: Moss J. Beyond Burned Out. Harvard Business Review February 10, 2021.) The stress that arises in the workplace stems from how work is done and not from the employee themselves. Strategies that are focused on employees to reduce burnout are unsuccessful because the problem rests with the organization. Until changes are made in how work is done, burnout will continue unabated.

There are six identified components of burnout:

  • Unsustainable Workload
  • Perceived Lack of Control
  • Insufficient Rewards for Effort
  • Lack of a Supportive Community
  • Lack of Fairness
  • Mismatched Values and Skills

(Source: Is Your Burnout From Too Much Work or Too Little Impact? Harvard Business Review December 10, 2021.)

An additional and often overlooked workplace stressor is the lack of impact at work. Employees at all levels want to make a difference. As explained in a Harvard Business Review article: “Burnout isn’t necessarily a function of too much work; burnout is more often the result of too little impact.” Burned out team members often state they are “exhausted,” attributing the reason for feeling both emotionally and physically drained to an overwhelming workload. For some employees, this misses the root cause, which is that their work feels empty and repetitive. When veterinary jobs lack intellectual stimulation and engagement, the employee’s energy levels become depleted, leading to exhaustion.

As seen in the survey responses, the team members who were interviewed are experiencing all of these factors even if they aren’t labeling themselves as “burned out.” In the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study III, moderate to high levels of burnout were reported by 59% of veterinarians and 76% of veterinary staff. This is concerning, as employees that are burnt out are 2.6 times more likely to look for another job. (Source: Do You Know Burnout When You See It? Harvard Business Review January 28, 2021) Given today’s veterinary workforce issues, addressing & resolving burnout should be a priority for veterinary hospital owners & managers. The question then becomes: How can hospital leaders spot at-risk employees, and what are some ways to bring back the spark?

How To Recognize Veterinary Worker Burnout

Burnout manifests in two different forms: passive and active, and both internal and external. Passive burnout is difficult to observe because it is associated with lower-intensity emotions like fatigue and dejection. Active burnout signs are more obvious and result from less emotional regulation, like decreased self-control resulting in the expression of emotions that are usually better off curbed in the workplace.

These four types of burnout can be recognized as follows:

  • Internal passive burnout is responsible for feelings of anxiety and despair. Team members believe they are powerless to change upsetting workplace elements, leading to sadness and feelings of inadequacy. When an employee is in this state, they may disengage from work, believing that they are a failure at everything they do.
  • External passive burnout is easier to spot, as team members become apathetic. They have lower performance standards, and are more withdrawn, guarded, and cynical. They become less invested in their job performance and have decreased interactions with teammates.
  • Internal active burnout is manifested by self-destructive behaviors like alcohol, drug abuse, and abandonment of activities that bring joy. While many of these changes do not occur at work, the outcomes of the actions may present as physical changes, such as poor grooming and absenteeism.
  • External active burnout often is verbally expressed, in the form of impatience, intolerance, and unexpected outbursts including non-provoked crying and anger.

How Leaders Can Help Manage Veterinary Worker Burnout

Managing burnout requires multiple approaches, aimed at preventing burnout from worsening while simultaneously correcting workplace practices from which the burnout is originating. Strategies to manage burnout are as follows:

1. Look for behavioral changes in your team

When leaders understand the emotional culture in their practices, they can look for deviations that are early indicators of burnout. Are your employees less tolerant of each other, as seen by unkind verbal comments and non-verbal language, like frowning or dismissive body language (turning their backs to a person that is talking with them, averted eye contact)? Is there an uptick in gossip? To head off these unwanted behaviors, leaders can incorporate the following strategies:

  • Because burnout results from unmanaged chronic workplace stress, early remediation of stress helps to reduce burnout. Make a habit of asking your teams on a regular basis to name one issue that is increasing workplace stress. By giving your employees the space to identify stressors, hospital leadership can proactively lessen the impact of them on their teams.
  • During the day, what are critical tasks that must be done, and which are less important? By coaching and empowering your team members to organize & prioritize their work tasks, veterinary workers gain more control over their work. This helps lessen the impact of one burnout contributor, i.e., a perceived lack of control.
  • Look for ways to support your team during the day by changing how work is done. This could be accomplished by shifting team members around to help with an unexpected emergency surgery. If there are outpatient emergencies that are overwhelming examination room technicians, having cross-trained front desk teams that can step in to help with some of the administrative burden can lower workplace stress.

2. Avoid Creating More Anxiety

Leaders’ messages and actions have a direct impact on their teams’ wellbeing and can be a source of chronic stress. There are numerous ways that leaders can avoid contributing to workplace tension and decrease the level of burnout their direct reports feel.

  • Avoid using negative language such as “unforgivable, terrible, and unacceptable.” These words can induce fear and worry in teams. Alternative words that could temper negative feelings would be “needless, concerning, and worrisome.”
  • Prevent confusion by being transparent, open, and authentic in sharing information. Unclear communication leaves employees guessing at the meaning behind statements, creating insecurity and unease. Cryptic message and statements can be misinterpreted, leading to misunderstandings and chaos. Of note, chaotic work environments are associated with higher levels of burnout. (Source: Chaos in the Clinic: Characteristics and Consequences of Practices Perceived as Chaotic. Journal of Healthcare Quality, Jan/Feb 2017)
  • Leaders should regulate their emotions to help create stability. Studies have found that leaders moods affect the emotions of the people around them. When leaders are calm and collected, teams will mimic this behavior, helping to reduce anxiety levels.

3. Create Opportunities for Meaningful Work

Having a sense of purpose at work is an important buffer against burnout, which leads to turnover. Studies show that, as purpose increased, burnout decreased, with a quarter of purpose-led respondents reporting no burnout at all.

In contrast, a 2022 Gallup Workplace Study reported that only 34% of employees were engaged in their work, the first drop in engagement scores in a decade. Teams that have low engagement, due to a lack of meaningful work, have turnover rates as much as 43% higher than teams with high workplace engagement, according to a 2021 Gallup Workplace study.

Here are some strategies to help veterinary workers find more meaning in their work:

  • Strategy 1: Mapping Reality with Expectations – Have workers think about and write down how they’re spending their work time. Then, compare the reality of their workday with what contributions they would like to make. Sometimes, perspective can be gained by asking burned out workers: “How is our work making the world a better place?” or “Why does our work matter?”
  • Strategy 2: Guide Employees To Reimagine Their Jobs – Ask them how work can become more meaningful. When hospital leaders allow team members to have input and autonomy in aligning their daily responsibilities to what is meaningful to them, employee workplace satisfaction and engagement increases.
  • Strategy 3: Add More Challenge, Not More Work Volume – It’s helpful to recognize that team members want impactful work that’s challenging yet manageable. In many cases, as job challenges increase, so does job satisfaction. Special note: Challenge should not be confused with volume. Assigning more work to people will not increase their engagement levels. Challenging work is meaningful, requiring the individual to think and contribute to the workplace differently, to learn and grow. Create protected time for what matters to your employees, such as time for continuing education, serving as a community representative for the hospital, and more.
  • Strategy 4: Help Your Employees Set & Maintain Boundaries – As seen in the workplace survey comments, the increasing lack of work-life balance in veterinary medicine creates employee stress and burnout. Yet, the inability to establish functional boundaries often is overlooked and unaddressed.

A recent study documented in a 2021 edition of Veterinary Integration Solutions reports that almost two-thirds of respondents would like hospital leadership to help them set better boundaries. There are many ways to accomplish this. Here are several action items veterinary hospital managers can take to facilitate this:

  • 1) Encourage employees to set personal boundaries. – For some team members, this might involve leaving on time at the end of the shift to protect sacred family time. For others, it might be taking a lunch break to recharge each day. Veterinary leadership can work with employees to help them understand and create behaviors that honor their priorities and needs.
  • 2) Honor employee boundaries. – Functional, realistic workplace boundaries are critical in creating a sense of fairness, preventing overwhelming workload, and establishing a collective sense of workplace control, all of which will help to protect against burnout. For example, are team members expected to respond to hospital communications on their days off? Are veterinarians expected to provide patient management on days off or vacations? Is the practice manager expected to be “on call” 24/7?

For veterinary hospitals and the teams that run them to thrive, there must be awareness and active work to resolve veterinary worker burnout. As jobs and work protocols are reimagined and re-tooled, veterinary team members, clients, and patients all benefit. Ultimately, this leads to a healthy and profitable veterinary hospital, and everyone wins.

Dr. Wendy Hauser | Peak Veterinary Consulting

About The Author:
Wendy Hauser, DVM is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting and has practiced for 30+ years as an associate, practice owner, and relief veterinarian. She also has worked in the animal health industry as a pet health insurance executive and as a technical services veterinarian. Dr. Hauser consults with both industry partners and individual veterinary hospitals. She is a regular presenter at veterinary conferences, facilitating workshops on hospital culture, associate development, leadership, client relations and operations. She has written & published more than 100 articles related to the veterinary industry, and she is the co-author of “The Veterinarian’s Guide to Healthy Pet Plans.”

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