Listening helps: Vet student seeks answers in burnout survey
Rather than wait for others to solve the problem of burnout, Hannah Eckstein, a preveterinary student at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, decided to go to the source and ask her future colleagues herself.
She’s designed a quick survey that she hopes everyone on veterinary practice teams, from kennel assistants to management, will take five to 10 minutes to complete before the deadline on January 31.
“I believe that listening to those who have been in the field longer is very helpful,” Eckstein said.
Veterinary burnout in the news
Even before the pandemic, a survey by AAHA in 2020 showed the turnover rate for vet techs was 23.4% per year—and the rate for DVMs was around 16%. While those in the veterinary world already knew that burnout was a growing problem pre-Covid, the issues facing vet teams are now national news.
In a June 2022 article in The Atlantic, Not One More Vet President Carrie Jurney, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), said demands for the nonprofit’s services providing support to vet team members in crisis increased “tenfold” in the past few years.
And it’s not going to get better on its own, with the much-publicized recent Mars Veterinary Health report predicting the US will need 41,000 more veterinarians and more than 130,000 new credentialed vet techs by the year 2030.
Preventing burnout before Day 1
While experienced veterinary professionals can understand the current state of vet med in the context of their entire careers, those entering the profession for the first time, like Hannah Eckstein, are bracing themselves for potential burnout even before graduation.
When it came time to write her senior thesis on something she is passionate about, Eckstein chose to focus on vet team mental health—not only because of what’s been in the news, but because of her own experiences working in general practice and emergency medicine.
“I know how detrimental the feelings of burnout can be on the mental health of veterinary professionals, and I have also experienced the shock of others at the statistics surrounding veterinary medicine,” she said.
She decided the best place to go for answers is to those already working in the profession. She designed a survey that includes questions from the Copenhagen Burnout Index and some demographics information, such as job title, gender, and number of years in vet med. The survey has been approved by the Bellarmine IRB Board, and responses are anonymous.
Eckstein hopes the results of this survey will provide insight for both veterinary workers and others outside the field. “I feel that with the growing scope of veterinary medicine, it is vital that the community truly understands the side effects and the reaches of burnout,” she said.
The psychology of preventing burnout
Courtney Keim, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Bellarmine, is advising Eckstein on her thesis. Keim interacts with a variety of organizations and businesses to create better workplaces, and she’s seen increased stress and burnout across industries.
But, she said, there’s something different about vet med. As a judge in the Veterinary Visionaries 2022 Spring Solving Event, she helped pick winning crowdsourced ideas for how to improve mental health in veterinary practices. “I was so impressed with the ways people across the veterinary industry are tackling mental health and wellness in the field. It is clear that veterinary medicine is ready to focus on employee wellbeing and mental health,” Keim said.
As veterinary teams are figuring all this out on the frontlines, psychologists are also looking for answers and identifying best practices that are applicable regardless of the industry.
“There are ways organizations can structure jobs and workplaces to prevent stress and burnout, as well as address it when it does occur,” Keim said. “These psychologically healthy workplaces focus on key areas: employee health and safety, employee involvement, employee recognition, work/life balance, and employee growth and development.
Increasing frequent, open communication around all these areas establishes trust and can make employees feel heard and respected. This decreases the chances of stress occurring and offers concrete ways to decrease workplace stress when it does.”
The future of vet med
Eckstein hopes she’ll be prepared to defend against the risk of burnout in her career. Having already experienced some of these challenges, she said: “I am afraid of what the full pressure of being a practicing veterinarian will feel like."
By tackling this issue in her thesis and reaching out to others in vet med, she is attempting to face that fear head-on. Not only for her own benefit, but for all her future colleagues.
Ultimately, Eckstein is optimistic, and her survey is an invitation to dialogue. “I am very hopeful with the new generation of veterinarians taking their mental health under control that there will be a ‘revolution’ of sorts to better the veterinary community,” she said.
“In my opinion, the best way to prevent burnout is through talking,” she said: “Whenever I feel myself falling into the ideas that I am not cut out for veterinary medicine or that it is too much, I talk to my co-workers. They all have the experience and the advice to help me.”
[This survey has been closed.]
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