Reclaiming What Matters: Moving Through Burnout as an Equine Veterinarian
burnout word display on tablet over table

For veterinarians, the past few years have involved an unprecedented demand for our services. At the same time, our profession has experienced a marked shortage of veterinarians, and in many cases, support staff. The combination of these circumstances has placed incredible strain on our industry and on each of us as individuals. In turn, we are seeing the profession-wide and individual consequences for these pressures and challenges. One of these consequences for equine veterinarians is burnout.

It’s important to appreciate that burnout is more than simply a descriptive term. Recently, burnout has been classified as an “occupational factor” that impacts one’s health status. This shift in classification is worth noting. It delineates what might once have been viewed as something unpleasant but tolerable to something that requires more attention because, by definition, it influences our health.

It also impacts our financial bottom line. A recent study estimated that the financial consequence of burnout is about $150,000 per equine veterinarian. This is due to turnover and reduced work hours.

What is Burnout for Equine Veterinarians?

Pensive, sad Mature caucasian male doctor being confronted by a female college

Let’s delve further into what burnout is. It was first described by Christina Maslach, and it consists of three facets in healthcare professionals. These include depersonalization, emotional exhaustion and feelings of low personal accomplishment.

Depersonalization involves distancing oneself from those to whom care is provided. This can include failing to see or appreciate the complexities of a client and patient’s unique situation. Emotional exhaustion is feeling worn out or strained with little left to give to others. Low personal accomplishment occurs when one no longer finds providing care rewarding. It also occurs when one has a low opinion of himself or herself.

Perceived Demands Exceeding Perceived Resources

We can also look at burnout from the standpoint of how our work intersects with ourselves. It can be defined as a chronic state of perceived demands exceeding perceived resources.

The word “perception” might seem to diminish the strength of its definition. However, it’s important to remember that perception is all we have. The inclusion of the word “perceive” in the definition draws needed attention to the fact that there is no objective measure to evaluate whether the resources are sufficient or the demands are too much. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. To this end, it’s important to remember that each of us is unique. We all respond to the demands of our work in different ways based on how we put ourselves first.

More and more people are conducting research in veterinary medicine to investigate the consequences of veterinarian health on care provision. However, we don’t have firm statistics just yet. We can extrapolate from human medicine, though. There, research has shown that burnout results in decreased quality of care. It also results in depression and problems in personal relationships, amongst others.

There is a simple saying: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s particularly true for caring professionals. When our cups are empty, we have fewer resources (whether that be time, creativity, problem-solving, etc.) to dedicate to helping our patients and clients, never mind to use in meeting our own needs. This idea helps us find the motivation to dedicate time and energy to taking care of ourselves. We have to care for ourselves even when it seems like doing so will negatively impact those we care about most—our families, friends, clients and patients.

Strategies for Overcoming Burnout

The strategies and approaches described below can help tip the scales from demands exceeding resources to a balance or a slight advantage of resources over demands. Keep in mind that there is no magic solution for combatting burnout as an equine veterinarian. It is often small alterations made over time that ultimately lead to meaningful change and positive outcomes. Further, it is critical to realize that there are systemic factors influencing our profession. Each of us has created an environment in which the barriers to self-care are incredibly high. Therefore, the experience of burnout is likely more frequent than not.

The strategies below are those geared toward individuals because of the nature of this article. They are not meant to diminish or dismiss the need for clinic-wide and profession-wide changes to support the well-being of veterinarians and veterinary teams.

Horses running

Mindfulness to Combat Burnout for Equine Veterinarians

This is one of the most powerful tools equine veterinarians have at their disposal for defusing burnout. This is because it can help us manage the daily barrage of inputs that is like being caught in a rainstorm of demands without any rain gear.

Mindfulness involves bringing our attention to our moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgemental fashion. Not only does this provide us with a better understanding of what is happening, it provides us with valuable information of how we feel about our experiences and ultimately whether they are resource-providing or resource-draining. To this end, mindfulness can help us make better decisions—such as putting up an umbrella or putting on a raincoat—to help manage the constant stream of demands.

This might seem simple, but it’s not easy. We’ve become acclimated to being in a rainstorm of demands and getting through our days however we can. Fish that swim in water all the time probably aren’t aware that they’re in water because it’s all they know.

Practicing mindfulness can help us recognize the environment in which we find ourselves. This can help us determine what we need to change it. There are many ways to practice mindfulness; some of them are more intensive than others. Meditation is the best known, but it is only one of many.

Other mindfulness practices involve turning your focus inward and paying attention to your body and immediate surroundings. Doing so provides an opportunity to gather information that can help you understand how you’re reacting or responding to what is around you. While not directly mindfulness practices, journaling or tracking your time and including bullet-point comments about your experience can help you better understand how you are engaging with yourself and your environment throughout the day.

Get To Know Yourself

Veterinarian examined young horse perfectly. Medical services and diseases of horses concept

In addition to understanding what resources and demands exist in our lives, we need to spend time exploring what is important to us and getting a solid vision of who we want to be. This includes understanding our purpose (our “why”) and our core values.

Find Your “Why”

There was a time before experiencing burnout when most of us were connected to why we wanted to become veterinarians. Likely, that was in the time leading up to veterinary school. Does that “why” still resonate with you? If so, wonderful! Consider ways to connect with it on a daily basis. If not, then you might benefit from taking time to reflect on what aspects of your profession or your personal life you find fulfilling. Then, direct energy to amplifying them.

Directing energy toward our purpose works for many because it helps keep our focus and attention on the parts of our lives that are rewarding. This helps diminish the influence of the draining or challenging aspects of our days. It can increase our feelings of career satisfaction, which will leave us feeling better about the job we’ve done. In turn, this contributes to feeling like we have more resources because we are meeting our own needs while doing our job.

If you want to better understand what purpose is and how it contributes to satisfaction, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action.”

Define Your Core Values

Core values are similar to purpose, though they are more narrowly focused. They are like the equipment we travel with on a daily basis that helps us live in a way that is consistent with the person we want to be. When we are too busy to do our job or live our lives the way we want to, we add to our stress, which in turn depletes our resources and makes the demands loom larger. To this end, if we can find ways of prioritizing authenticity and honoring our values, we can increase our resources by decreasing the stress we are under on a daily basis.

In order to embrace purpose or values on a regular basis, we need to make space (or reallocate resources) in our lives to do so. We need to intentionally manage the inputs (or demands) that reach us and develop some strategies for how we handle them instead of operating on a first-come, first-served basis or a “fire-engine” approach. We can do this through boundaries. These are rules or guidelines that we set for ourselves that determine how we engage with the world. While a simple idea, they are not easy to determine, and they can be even harder to assert to others and hold for ourselves.

We want our boundaries to facilitate living in alignment with our purpose and values, as well as meeting our obligations (i.e., secure employment, mortgage, caring for our own animals). It can be helpful to take some time to consider the big picture of your life right now. How much of your time are you in charge of? Contrast this with the amount of time dictated by others. Use that information to guide you as you identify ways to set and assert boundaries that will slowly facilitate you being more intentional about where your resources are used.

Crowd-Source Resources

Finally, if you are an equine veterinarian experiencing burnout, remember that you are not alone. Most often, help is available to those who are open to receiving it. Often, when we are under high levels of stress and burnout, we feel like we are alone to deal with all the demands that come our way. This experience of isolation has been amplified by the pandemic- ic, when access to social connection and support were limited.

Another barrier is the idea that we are all too busy to be able to provide meaningful support to one another. We can manage this by leveraging a team-based approach and embracing creative problem-solving. Doing this involves open conversation about what each team member needs and finding ways for the group to support each individual. This decreases the demand on any one person, creates connection and ultimately increases resources for all.

Resolving Burnout as an Equine Veterinarian

Burnout is not something that develops overnight, and it can’t be resolved that way. Changing our behavior, whether
in our personal or professional lives, is difficult and requires energy and effort. It also requires choosing change at many crossroads you’ll encounter on your journey.

There is no rush to start down this road and no need to pursue it at all if you’re comfortable with how things are. You are always the person who is best equipped to determine what’s right for you.

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