Essential Minds: How Technicians Are Struggling with Mental Health During the Pandemic
by Kathleen Dunbar, RVT, VTS (Clinical Practice, Canine/Feline)
Note: Because of the sensitive and personal nature of the subject matter covered here, some technicians interviewed for this story did not want their real names used. Those in the article identified only by their first name are using a pseudonym.
DONNA FEELS THE WAVES LAPPING OVER HER. Her body feels heavy, like she has reached her limit in the water. She sees no shore in sight. She holds on a bit longer. Donna feels like she is drowning. Water fills her mouth. She can’t catch her breath.
“Every shift feels like you have enough time to pull your head out of the water and take a breath before going under again,” she said. “Treading water and gasping for those breaths is mentally and physically exhausting.”
Donna lives in the Greater Toronto Area, and, like many veterinary technicians, she has been working through the COVID-19 pandemic. She says that in her 34 years of being a technician, she has never experienced a more stressful time in her career.
Veterinary technicians are navigating pandemic-induced stressors everywhere. Social isolation, financial worries, family job loss, no childcare, and new responsibilities such as homeschooling are just a few of the new at-home burdens.
Work challenges include fewer teammates, varied work hours, the lack of clarity on “essential” designation, increased caseloads, and clients with limited financial resources. And that’s on top of euthanasias without owners present, shortages of supplies, and concern about transmitting COVID-19 or getting it themselves.
The early days were especially challenging, says Sheena Davis, LVT, of Abingdon Square Veterinary Clinic in New York City.
“Within the first two weeks, all logic and organization went out the window,” she said. “We were all working in survival mode. There were times when all the cages were full of whining, barking dogs. Phone calls and angry owners were all coming down on us. I had a few moments when I felt overwhelmed and needed to step out of a ward of crying dogs to have a moment to cry for myself.”
Crying has become commonplace for Jessica. She has been in the profession for four years and works in a general practice hospital. She said she is losing all hope and dreads the prospect of even a puppy appointment.
“It seems every day is worse than the day before,” she said. “My coworkers and I cry almost every day on the floor, either from stress, frustration, or exhaustion.”
David, who enjoyed his work before the pandemic, says his stress level remains high. He feels overwhelmed. Several times, he has expressed to his employer that maintaining the high-speed pace creates an environment that increases the risk for mistakes and a weak team.
Of the 30 technicians interviewed for this article, almost every one said that family members are expressing concern for their wellbeing.
COVID-19 as a Traumatic Experience
Most interviewees indicated that they had some mental health difficulties before the pandemic. About half were seeing a professional counselor or receiving medications. Those with well-managed mental health issues started experiencing an exacerbation once the pandemic hit. Those with no mental health issues began developing them. Some, including Dana Martin, RVT, who works on Prince Edward Island, had been on medication at an earlier point in her life. With the onset of the pandemic, she needed to start medication again. Others, such as Liz, a hospital manager from the tri-state area, sought professional counseling within a month of the beginning of the pandemic.
For Erin Wasson, MSW, a veterinary social worker from the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, this comes as no surprise.
“The pandemic is a global traumatic experience,” Wasson said. “In the bigger, broader community, we’re seeing people having traumatic reactions to a situation that is traumatic. We’re talking about the people who are continuing to work. They’re grateful to still be employed but fearful of being employed.”
Problems with Mood, Energy, Sleep, and Concentration
Although veterinary technicians are thankful to be employed, they are having mood, energy, concentration, and sleep problems. Donna says anxiety emerges as she drives into her workplace parking lot.
“I have to give myself a pep talk because I can feel the anxiety setting in,” she said. “Sometimes I start to shake. I have to take a few moments in my car to breathe deeply and tell myself that it’s OK to go in.”
Debbie, who says her mood affects her eating patterns, and vice versa, has become cantankerous.
“I’m snippy, and I have negative responses to most interactions with others,” she said. “I interact less with others. My tone is ruder. I lose my patience quicker and more often.”
Liz says she reached a breaking point.
“I was ‘forced’ to step back and disconnect,” she said. “I was not a positive influence on staff when I was in that state.” She said she has begun reconsidering her value as a manager and her ability to manage the team because of her anxiety.
Liz, like many others, said she has little energy for anything when not at work. For Teresa, who feels like she is on “autopilot,” putting away groceries or even getting out of bed has become a feat. Sleep deprivation exacerbates this low energy. Many have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep. Heather, who has worked in the profession since 2009, said, “I find myself waking up in the middle of the night to process [work] situations that occurred during the day. Sometimes it seems as if my brain is on overdrive and won’t shut down and rest.”
Common nightmares among those interviewed involve angry clients, dying animals, constantly ringing phones, clients pounding on doors, and making mistakes at work. Some say that their significant others have woken up to them screaming in the night while sleeping. Teresa has noticed an increase in already-present night terrors.
Wasson says that this is the nervous system’s response to the trauma of COVID-19.
“We have protective mechanisms that exist within us to keep us safe,” Wasson said. She noted that the ongoing nature of the pandemic keeps people on alert, and they don’t know what to expect next.
“Being on alert for a really long time is exhausting,” she said. “You’ve got to have your downtime to rejuvenate and rest and digest, and we’re not getting that.”
The lack of downtime is also leading to problems concentrating. Many are making mistakes, especially with drug calculations, file omissions, and communication lapses, even with extra checks in place. Jessica said, “I’ve never been one to make mistakes with medications, but since this started I’ve made more than I ever have.”
Others notice problems with normally straightforward technical skills, such as venipuncture, radiographs, and contact with aggressive patients. Kelly, a seasoned veterinary technician of 14 years, said, “I find myself mildly fearful of pets who are less than enthused about visiting us. I also noticed that my venipuncture skills suffered from my lack of focus, creating further anxiety.”
Many said they feel like giving up their duties, and would rather have a colleague finish a task when they can’t concentrate.
Loss of Empathy and Job Passion
Many say that they have less empathy or none at all. They feel disengaged when communicating with clients because of hostility, or because they feel rushed from one case to the next.
Erin Wasson, MSW, University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine
Heather says she usually tries to understand situations from an owner’s perspective so she can develop insight into their behavior. However, she said, “I have lost some empathy toward owners who have been overly hostile, aggressive, and threatening. I have never seen behavior manifested in the way I have since COVID-19.”
David is losing enthusiasm for his job. He says his wife has also noticed a change in his attitude toward work. “She has asked more than once if there is anything she can do to help me ‘love what I do’ again. She knows my career is my passion.”
Debbie experiences depression daily and is having motivation problems. “I don’t care if I work as hard or get as much done,” she said. “I’m more likely to be a little late to work and less likely to stay late. I’m not doing anything extra or above and beyond.”
A third of those interviewed said they are re-evaluating their careers and intend to leave the field once the economy improves.
Wasson says that this is not unexpected. “There is a potential for the pandemic to have some lasting effects on workplace dynamics, and the feelings that we have about each other as colleagues, particularly if the workplace wasn’t so healthy to begin with.”
Wasson says that it is a natural human response to want things to return to normal. However, she explained that COVID-19 brings an opportunity for those in veterinary medicine to listen and look at things that aren’t working and think about letting go of those things. Part of this opportunity involves a lesson in realizing that our mindsets and workplaces can be more flexible than we could have imagined.
Self-reflection involves imagining how we can better take care of ourselves, which necessitates putting a focus on daily activities that support general health and wellbeing, and getting help with a professional counselor.
“We need to be gentle with ourselves right now,” Wasson said. “We need to genuinely roll back our expectations of how we think we should be and instead just tend to who we are.”
Robin Ashley, LVMT, technician supervisor at Appalachian Animal Hospital in Piney Flats, Tennessee, admits she is not heeding this advice. She has worked in the profession for close to 20 years and, like many others, was forced to homeschool her children because of the pandemic. She said lack of self-care is “always a looming crack just beneath the surface.”
Her story is not unique. Many veterinary technicians say they just aren’t taking care of themselves.
However, some, such as Heather, use specific self-care strategies. “Recognize we all get stressed,” she says. “Ask for help. Take care of basic needs on a daily basis. Find things to do outside of work that support mental health.”
Physical activity, meal planning, humor, helping others, spending time with their animal companions, and writing down goals are other strategies some veterinary technicians are using. Some are developing an existing or new hobby.
Dallas, who has a hard time keeping her irritability in check, said, “I started getting a bunch of houseplants. Now every day when I get home, I tend to my plants and make sure they’re all happy, which in turn makes me happy to see them thriving.”
Others are focusing on self-reflection, a higher power, yoga, or meditation. Kim Jonah, LVT, a veterinary technician of five years from Nevada, says she listens to music on her drive home from work, reflecting on what went well, what she learned, and how she has grown.
Robin Ashley, LVMT, with patient “EFT” in Tennessee
Interestingly, a few veterinary technicians interviewed said that the pandemic has had a silver lining. Jan, who is a firm believer in advocating for herself and others, says that the pandemic has given her a fresh perspective on her future. It pushed her to make changes in her life, and she is grateful for that.
Ashlyne Bigg, RVT, came to terms with her alcoholism during the pandemic. “Close to the end of the lockdown, I realized I had a very serious problem at hand,” she said. “I decided on a hungover Sunday morning that I needed help. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Bigg said that as a new veterinary technician, the pandemic has forced her to learn quickly and perform under pressure. She says she wouldn’t be as skilled without this experience.
Others say that they feel closer to their colleagues than ever. Daphne, who works at a large specialty and emergency hospital in Philadelphia, says that she has grown to appreciate her coworkers more. She has found new respect for them “doing their very best to keep giving the best standard of care in an environment rife with stress and uncertainty.”
Some set their sights on a feeling of resilience. Kristin, who is studying for her technician specialty exam, said, “I have determined that if I can get through the workload that this pandemic has dropped on us, then I can get through anything. We have had our highest case volume to date, and we are still continuing to provide optimal care.”
Wasson points out that for those who are feeling that they are managing well, they might consider paying it forward.
“If we are someone who’s managing quite well, that’s wonderful,” Wasson said. “Maybe we can take on more for our colleagues who aren’t. Just be present for them and help them in different ways.”
Sheena Davis agrees.
“If it is not an emotional burden, help a colleague,” Davis said. “It is easy to get swept up in the madness of this pandemic, but it is also easy to create safe shores to rest on.”
Between May and June 2020, 30 veterinary technicians in the United States and Canada were interviewed for this article. Interviews evaluated the mental wellbeing of respondents after the onset of COVID-19. Respondents were credentialed veterinary technicians with 1 to 34 years of experience who were working in a practice during the pandemic.
Since the onset of the pandemic:
- 23 respondents have new or increased anxiety
- 18 respondents have new or increased sleep problems
- 18 respondents have new or increased irritability
- 15 respondents have new or increased concentration problems
- 15 respondents have new or increased depression
- 15 respondents feel like that are having a hard time with self-care
- 6 respondents say that they know nothing about self-care
- 6 respondents feel that they cannot access mental health resources because of finances, technology, time, or their geographic location
Kathleen Dunbar, RVT, VTS (Clinical Practice, Canine/Feline), is a freelance writer who has worked as a registered veterinary technician since 2008. Dunbar obtained her VTS in 2016 and has worked in supportive housing for people with mental health difficulties for more than 20 years. Dunbar is currently working on her master’s in social work.
Photo credits: Photo courtesy of Rise and Shine Photography, photo courtesy of William Dekay, photo courtesy of Christina Coppolino