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Who in Your Practice has Experienced Compassion Fatigue, Burnout or Depression?

Can your practice afford to fight back? Can you afford not to?


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It must have been about 7 years into owning my mixed practice when a nagging tension gained enough steam to demand my attention. The practice was healthy and growing. I’d gained some respect in the community. And I worked every day with a well-trained staff that was loyal to the practice and to me.

During those same years, our family had grown, and now there were three beautiful children who needed and deserved their daddy’s attention. Although she was (and is) incredibly capable, I didn’t want my wife to have all the fun of raising our kids. Plus, like everyone else, there were other worthy interests outside of veterinary medicine competing for some of my time, too. 

Although it may not have been accurate, it seemed to me that all the vets I knew worked at least 80 hours a week and owned great practices. I can clearly remember when I realized that a decision had to be made. I had to answer the question, “Is veterinary medicine a means to an end, or is it an end to a means?” For me, it was the former. Looking back, I’m convinced that facing that question honestly and becoming comfortable with it may have enabled me to practice longer than if I’d ignored it and tried to be something other than myself.

Back then (I opened the practice in 1973), compassion fatigue, burnout and depression were not topics of discussion. And professional journals were not filled with information about their reality. Still, like all my colleagues, I fought through each of those “cousins” from time to time.  Wisely, our profession has begun shining a bright light onto the importance of mental health of veterinarians and all who work together in practices to provide health care for animals.

Good definitions and resources are available here, here and here. Just a little research will yield much more if you’re interested.

What Steps Can Your Practice Take to Manage and Minimize Compassion Fatigue, Burnout and Depression?

A recent article in MedicalNewsToday.com lists several steps anyone can take to improve mental health and well-being.

  • Adopt a healthy diet.
  • Get regular exercise
  • Get more sleep
  • Manage Stress
  • Get involved in volunteer work
  • Take up a hobby

Jenny Moffett, BVetMed, MSc adds these suggestions in an article you can read here.

  • Set boundaries between work and home life
  • Prioritize relationships
  • Cultivate gratitude
  • Recognize that perfection is not necessary, even at the vet clinic

Don’t forget the importance of more steps to improve your mental health including these from Lewis Howes at Entrepreneur.com.

  • Make time for daily meditation
  • Be clear on your vision (for your private and work life)
  • Rest and restore

That All Sounds Great, But Where Do I Begin?

Reading through that abbreviated list of actions can become a stressor in itself! Allowing for any one of them requires time. How can a veterinary practice hope to provide time for its people to actually take those actions?

In a word the answer comes down to commitment. That is, a commitment to making mental health and well being a priority. Accomplishing that will have financial consequences. First, remember and embrace the title of this AVMA News article, “Ignoring compassion fatigue can be bad for business."

Decisions Must Make Sense Financially…

Making mental health and well-being a priority is going to require changes in most practices. And, those changes will have costs associated with them. For example, you may decide to increase time off for yourself and for your staff.  Let’s say it’s more vacation days or flexible working hours. More and more practices are closing the doors on weekends to provide more time to “do life.” Most of the time there will be a financial consequence to changes you make to accomplish your goals. Practice leaders will face some decisions like:

  • Can we be content with less net income?
  • Should we hire more staff and/or veterinarians to maintain our net income and make well-being a priority?
  • What effect will these changes have on our clients?

There are many ways to overcome these challenges. And, each practice will find different solutions. But here is one potential modification almost all veterinary practices can consider as a part of the solution to financial challenges.

Let’s consider a sort of double-edged sword veterinarians encounter consistently.

Most Veterinarians Reduce Prices So Animals Can Get Care…

Dr. Lori Kogan, an associate professor and psychologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University conducted a study which shows that veterinarians are an incredibly philanthropic group. Some of the results of her study are discussed in this VIN News article.

Her study found that “more than 99 percent of the veterinarians who responded offer discounts on services at least sometimes and often frequently.”

I can attest to that from my own experience. Veterinarians are compassionate people. The ability to provide assistance to our patients and clients plays a significant role in our well-being.

 Many situations bring on a very real tension. The tension develops when Desire to help as many pets as possible vs. Commitment to mental health vs. Sufficient income, meet head-on in the form of a sick or injured pet presented by an owner who cannot or will not pay for the best care you can offer.

Each practice must decide how to manage that tension. One possible solution offered in the VIN News article is to keep track of discounts. Then one could determine realistically at what point the ability to make well-being a priority begins to suffer as a result of discounted products and services.

Understand and Support Each Other…

“Never overestimate the strength of the torchbearer's arm, for even the strongest arms grow weary.”

A.J. Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar

I like this quote by A.J. Darkholme for two reasons.

  1. If you are the owner or the lead veterinarian at your practice, it all starts with you. You need to set the example. Until you take some steps that show your commitment to your own well being, others will never feel free to take them either. Know your limitations. Take care of yourself first. (Remember the safety instructions before an airline flight: apply your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others). Build your team on trust. Enjoy the fruits of delegation.
  2. If you are an associate veterinarian or any other part of the team, make a commitment to your own well-being. And recognize that “the torch bearer” needs your support, your input and your trust. Those added financial consequences can only be managed to the extent to which each participant fills their role in the practice.

The veterinary profession is particularly susceptible to mental health issues for a variety of reasons. But, we are also particularly equipped and gifted to solve problems. Now that this challenge has been so well identified over the past few years, more and more solutions are available to minimize and manage those pesky cousins we call compassion fatigue, burnout and depression.    

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