New burnout study confirms what we already figured: It was bad before the pandemic and it’s worse now

A new study of burnout in the veterinary profession indicates that the pandemic has taken its toll on the veterinary profession.

The survey was based on the Professional Fulfillment Index (PFI) that was initially developed at Stanford University to measure both burnout and professional fulfillment in human health professionals.

Ivan Zakharenkov, DVM, MBA, founder and CEO of Veterinary Integration Solutions and CEO at Galaxy Vet led the study.

NEWSTat reached out to Zakharenkov to find out more.

NEWStat: For purposes of the study, how do you measure burnout?

Ivan Zakharenkov: Burnout is measured using two scales that represent two dimensions of work exhaustion and interpersonal disengagement, respectively. The PFI also includes a scale to measure professional fulfillment. The Professional Fulfillment scale assesses the degree of intrinsic positive rewards the individual derives from his or her work, the Work Exhaustion scale assesses symptoms of exhaustion, and the Interpersonal Disengagement scale assesses empathy and connectedness with others.

NEWStat: How does the burnout rate in the new study compare to previous studies?

IZ: The burnout rate increased in all groups over the past year. Survey participants reported higher levels of work exhaustion: distress, lack of enthusiasm, signs of physical and emotional depletion, and feeling a sense of dread when thinking about work they had to do. 

On the interpersonal disengagement scale, respondents showed feeling less empathetic and less connected with their patients and colleagues, and less sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others. The only item that did not aggregate compared to the previous year was “interest in talking with client”—the  mean score actually improved, suggesting that the desire for personal interaction became stronger during the pandemic.

Professional fulfillment also declined; comparative analysis revealed that veterinary professionals were feeling even less happy, worthy, and satisfied at work, as compared to the previous year. 

NEWStat: Which groups reported the highest levels of burnout?

IZ: Technicians and younger professionals revealed the highest burnout rate. This year we added a question about gender, which wasn’t in the previous survey, and found that women are significantly more burned out than men. 

Participants who identified as gender-variant/nonconforming—although representing only 1% of all respondents—reported the highest level of burnout.

NEWStat: How does age affect burnout?

IZ: Studies in other industries found that younger people are generally more burned out. 

The study revealed that veterinary professionals under 30 years of age are more prone to burnout, which is aligned with last year’s findings. The burnout rate in older age groups is still high, but the trend declines with increasing age to the point when respondents over 61 reported a dramatically lower burnout rate than other groups.

Burnout rate decreases with age and practitioners nearing retirement report a significantly lower burnout than respondents under 30 years old. Also, respondents who saw fewer patients per week and those working in academia were revealed to be less burned out.

NEWStat: Most practices report being busier than ever. How does burnout correlate to caseload?

IZ: To find whether there is a direct correlation between the caseload and burnout, participants were asked about the number of patients they see every day and this data was compared to their burnout rate. The most common number of appointments was 11–20 per day (34.6% of respondents) and 21–30 per day (25.8% of respondents); every tenth respondent attended to over 50 patients daily. The analysis found that as the caseload increased, so did one’s burnout, signaling that work overload is one of the burnout contributors. 

This is a point for further exploration but the burnout rate plateauing once the caseload surpasses 21 patients per day suggests that anything above this number is overwhelming. 

High caseloads also negatively affect work-life balance.

Work-life balance reduced as the number of patients seen per day increased, which is evidence that caseload has a significant impact on work-life balance. This statement is further supported by respondents wanting their employers to hire more staff as a way to help them achieve a better work-life balance.

NEWStat: What can practices do to prevent or reduce burnout in staff?

IZ: Practices need to be strategic about burnout prevention. In our study, respondents who indicated that their employer has a clear burnout prevention strategy revealed a significantly lower burnout rate than the rest. So, if employers took a proactive and structured approach towards protecting their employees’ mental wellbeing, they would have fewer burned-out teams.

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