Veterinary burnout survey continues to seek prevention strategies


[Trigger warning: This article mentions suicide.]

Ivan Zakharenkov, DVM, MBA, chief executive officer of Galaxy Vets (also known as Dr. Zak), has spent the last several years “on a continuous search for why burnout happens” in the veterinary profession. He said he is working on “dissecting [burnout] down to small particles” to see what changes we can make to prevent it.

From ER to burnout researcher

“As a graduating veterinarian, I had an interest in ER and critical care,” he said. “I’m passionate about chaos and unpredictable environments. And, certainly, ER gives you that, but what I didn’t know is the wear-and-tear on you that comes with it.”

For six years following graduation, Zakharenkov pushed through a rigorous ER schedule, including picking up shifts on his days off. After a while, he became disinterested in his work. He no longer cared about his cases and felt detached and unemotional. He felt increasing frustration with clients.

“I got yelled at a lot,” he said.

“I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t call it burnout. I just thought I was crazy,” he said. “Now I reflect back and I can say, ‘oh, that was burnout.’ At that point, I just thought ‘I can’t do this’ and lost interest in the profession. It was a dark place. Unfortunately, part of my story is that I ended up attempting suicide. Obviously, it wasn’t successful, and I’m grateful for that.”

He left the industry for six months while working with mental health professionals to recover. He did return to clinical work but then pivoted into entrepreneurship. While earning his MBA, Zakharenkov wanted to do “something useful for the industry.” As he looked for a topic for his dissertation, he recognized the growing awareness around burnout and thought, “if this is so systemic in the industry, I would like to learn more about it.”

His research began with investigating how prevalent burnout was. “Is it like a shark attack?” he wondered. Noting that everyone knows when a shark attack occurs, even though the event has a low incidence. In his initial work, he found that burnout was widespread in the profession and not only affecting veterinarians but the entire veterinary team.

After his dissertation, he continued to research burnout through his position as CEO of Galaxy Vets. His work moved from detecting burnout and investigating treatments to looking for prevention strategies. Each year, Galaxy Vets launches a burnout survey using the Professional Fulfillment Index from Stanford University to track burnout levels and assess hypotheses around contributing factors.

Results of the third annual burnout survey

In March, Galaxy Vets published the results of the third annual burnout survey, which was conducted in 2022.

Overall burnout levels decreased compared to 2022, returning to the pre-pandemic levels found in 2020. Younger veterinary professionals continued to experience higher rates of burnout, as has been seen in previous years and across multiple studies of mental health in the veterinary profession.

This year, practice managers showed the highest levels of burnout of any position in the clinic.

A “notable relationship” with economic euthanasia

The first notable finding was the relationship between euthanasia and burnout levels. “Euthanasia itself does not increase the chance of burnout,” said Zakharenkov, “but specifically economic euthanasia [does increase] the chance of burnout.”

Veterinary professionals who perform a higher percentage of euthanasia for economic reasons have higher levels of burnout, according to the survey. He noted that some clinics and organizations work against economic euthanasia utilizing tools like payment plans and increasing the focus on preventive care.

More security equals less burnout

The survey also investigated the relationship between type of veterinarian compensation—production-based pay versus straight salary—and burnout.

While the survey did not reveal a direct relationship between compensation and burnout, it did find that those with less certainty about their future and retirement are more stressed and burned out than those with certainty.

“There are people who like salary and certainty and those who like commission and opportunity and those in between,” he said, and the preferred pay structure will vary by individual preference. But whatever makes the person feel most secure will likely reduce their levels of burnout.

Hybrid work gains popularity

The final major finding in the survey was that hybrid work environments are growing in appeal, especially to CSRs and practice managers, who can easily do administrative tasks from home. There are a growing number of remote opportunities for all members of the veterinary team, which provides not only a change in environment but more flexibility in scheduling.

“I’m a big proponent of telehealth in a very specific slice,” Zakharenkov said. “I see it as a supplement to the hospital but as a separate structure.”

In other words, instead of having doctors trying to run a full appointment book and see telemedicine appointments simultaneously, allow a doctor to work from home seeing the telemedicine appointments while others are in the clinic. “You can expand your hospital beyond the four walls,” he said, though he reminds veterinary practices to “watch the VCPR laws in your state.”

Overwork is not burnout—What your practice can do to help

“What I don’t like in the industry right now is that people overuse the word burnout,” Zakharenkov said.

A common mistake is to associate overwork with burnout, he said. “It’s not necessarily true. You could be working over 60 hours a week but be so in the flow and happy if everything is normal and not burn out. It will be overworking. You’ll be tired. But you’re not particularly burned out. It’s very important to understand the distinction.”

Overwork is only one of the six burnout triggers originally identified by burnout researcher and social psychologist Christina Maslach, PhD, and the only one that is sometimes directly within an individual’s control. “The other five are really about the community and what happens in the hospital, so managing the hospital against these triggers [is essential],” said Zakharenkov.

These triggers include:

  • Values disconnect, where individual values and the values of the clinic or workplace are not in alignment.
  • Breakdown in community, which is related to conflict, hostile work environments, lack of feedback, and more.
  • Unfairness, which may be due to discrimination or favoritism in the workplace.
  • Insufficient reward, or under-appreciation, which Zakharenkov notes does not have to be compensation-based. (He reminds veterinary practices that “Thank you is free.”)
  • Lack of control, which is often experienced by team members who do not have the ability to influence the way a clinic runs.

When there is an accumulation of these triggers, burnout becomes increasingly likely. Galaxy Vets recently released a resource to help practices look at how each trigger is manifested in the industry, how to evaluate if it is present in their hospital, and how to address the problem(s).

With his ongoing research, Zakharenkov continues to work toward his goal of helping the veterinary profession “manage organizations and people with burnout prevention in mind rather than treatment after the fact.”


Important: If you find yourself in crisis, you can call/text 988 to be connected to the suicide lifeline.  


Further reading

March 2023 Burnout study findings

Eliminate These Six Burnout Triggers from Your Veterinary Hospital


Kate Boatright, VMD, is a small animal veterinarian, speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 and has worked in rural small animal general practice and emergency clinics ever since. She is passionate about inciting positive change in the profession through mentorship and servant leadership in organized veterinary medicine. She writes a monthly column for NEWStat on the role of the spectrum of care in improving outcomes in clinical practice.

Photo credit: CSA Images © E+ via Getty Images Plus 

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.

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