Burnout: An “Occupational Phenomenon”

Burnout isn’t a medically recognized condition—you won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example. But according to experts, it’s a very real condition.


How to Recognize It and How to Avoid It

 Nobody has to tell veterinary professionals that on-the-job burnout is real. But what does it look like, and how can you avoid it?

Burnout isn’t a medically recognized condition—you won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for example. But according to veterinary consultant Josh Vaisman, CCFP, MAPPCP, it’s a very real condition: “The World Health Organization recently redefined burnout as an occupational phenomenon.”

Vaisman, cofounder and lead consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting in Boulder, Colorado, knows firsthand just how real occupational burnout is—he experienced it himself a few years ago, and it changed his life. Now he shares his personal experience with burnout to help Trends readers recognize the signs. He also shares tips and strategies to help your staff avoid burnout and, more importantly, help them thrive.

Although not a veterinarian, Vaisman has been in the veterinary world for two decades. At one point he was part-owner of a seven-doctor small animal practice, where he also served as the onsite hospital director—all while consulting on the side. The norm was a 150-mile round-trip commute and a 55- to 70-hour workweek.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of feeling that who we are and what we do matters. It doesn’t take long and it doesn’t cost a penny.”


“From the outside, it looked like I had reached the pinnacle of the entrepreneurial journey,” Vaisman said. “But internally, I was growing more and more depleted and disengaged every day.”

Workload was only part of it. The bigger problem was the way he was doing it, which had become all about numbers. “I started to put our financial performance ahead of the performance and experience of the people I was supposed to be leading,” Vaisman said. “That was a really depleting way to be. It just mismatched my core values.”

But he also just felt like that’s what he was supposed to be doing. “And so I kept doing it, until one day I just couldn’t do it anymore. I completely and totally burned myself out.”

Vaisman had a breakdown in his kitchen one morning while scrambling eggs: “I really hit rock bottom.”

He said it was just an ordinary day like any other. “There wasn’t anything in particular that was happening. I wasn’t looking forward to a particularly difficult day. Nobody had said or done anything. I was just making breakfast for my wife and myself, and all of a sudden, this physical sensation hit me, and I couldn’t hold onto the ladle. I had to set it down, and I sat down on the ground as I just completely broke down crying in the middle of my kitchen.”


“Burnout is an occupational phenomenon that happens in and due to your work environment and conditions.”


He vividly remembers thinking, “I don’t actually know what’s happening to me. I don’t know why this is happening right now in this way,” but said it felt as if suddenly all of that buildup had to be released in a very physical way.

Vaisman acknowledged that “burnout” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. But he said the word “occupational” is key. “Burnout is not something that happens in your weekend hobbies; burnout is not something that happens in your personal life. Burnout is an occupational phenomenon that happens in and due to your work environment and conditions.”

What does burnout look like? Vaisman says occupational burnout manifests itself in three primary ways:

  • Extreme emotional exhaustion in and around work. “It’s a very tangible feeling that you literally have nothing left in the tank.”
  • Extreme cynicism or negativity. “Sometimes it’ll show up as somebody who we think of as that rockstar, positive contributing member of the team,” Vaisman said. “And it seems like overnight they’ve become the toxic team member. They’re just cranky about everything and unpleasant to be around.”
  • A sense of loss of self-efficacy or a loss of all belief in yourself. “Oftentimes it shows up as this sort of internal dialogue that ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, because nothing I do matters; I can’t make a difference. I’m incapable of changing anything or fixing anything or accomplishing anything here. I may as well just give up.’”

Looking back at his own experience of burnout, Vaisman said he realized he was exhibiting the first two symptoms for months leading up to his breakdown: “I started to become the toxic team member.”

Worse yet, he was in a leadership position. “You can imagine the negative impact I was having on the team around me, but I didn’t realize it.” Other people realized, of course, but nobody on his team said anything. “I was the person at the top, and they were intimidated.”

The third symptom showed up that day in his kitchen.

Vaisman said that was the most painful part. He describes himself as naturally optimistic: “I’ve had this belief that even when things are hard, we’ll find a way to get through.” When that disappeared, “I had this sense that maybe I just don’t belong here, maybe I don’t belong in any of this, maybe I’m just not capable, maybe I just suck as a human being.” He says he had reached the point where he’d completely lost any sense of belief in himself. “That’s the part that hurts my heart the most.”

Yet he felt he had to soldier on: “I kept telling myself, ‘You’re the entrepreneur. You’re the business owner. Put on your big boy pants and just keep going!’”

Then, inevitably, he couldn’t.

Vaisman said it took him a few months, but he got past the breakdown “with the supportive and loving cajoling of my wife and partner” as well as support from a professional coach. With their help, and a lot of soul-searching, “I finally gave myself permission to step away from the environment that was contributing to this experience, and I did.”

He sold his equity in the hospital, resigned his position as hospital director, and left the consulting firm. “I just took some time to myself.”

In that time, he had an epiphany: “It really struck me that the way we do things in this profession doesn’t always serve us in the best possible ways.”

Vaisman said that as a profession, we’ve gotten really, really good at taking care of others, but we’re not that good at taking care of ourselves and our colleagues. And that’s a tragedy. “This work is such worthy, meaningful work that’s imbued with such a deep sense of mattering and impact in the world, it should contribute to our fulfillment. It shouldn’t deplete us. So I decided that I was going to try and find a better way that actually allows us to thrive, not just professionally but personally, and so that’s what I did.”

He went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology. In 2019, he cofounded Flourish Veterinary Consulting and made it his mission to share with other veterinary professionals the lessons he’d learned—both in school and in his personal life.

What Is Keeping Veterinary Staff from Thriving?

According to Vaisman, there are “myriad” issues that can lead to burnout and keep staff from thriving: “As a profession, on average, we’re vastly underpaid. We overwork ourselves. We say ‘yes’ to too many things.”


A tremendously effective and incredibly simple method Vaisman recommends is to notice the good things that people are doing and affirm them on a regular basis.

But even if all these issues were to magically resolve themselves overnight, it doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to be fine. For Vaisman, it comes down to one important thought: “The absence of suffering is not necessarily thriving,” Vaisman said. “You can eliminate all of the problems that exist in the veterinary profession and that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll thrive.”

Vaisman believes that a lot of the challenges we face are due to a lack of knowledge and tools because nobody teaches us how to create environments that contribute to human thriving. “How do we create a workplace in the veterinary space that allows people to be and feel their best at work so that, at the end of the day, they feel fulfilled?”

How Can Leaders Create an Environment Conducive to Thriving?

Vaisman noted that people in the veterinary space, especially those in leadership positions, need to recognize that there are things they can do—most of which cost nothing except a little bit of time and intention—that can contribute to people “actually feeling energized by the challenging, exhausting work that we do [and thriving] despite the challenges and difficulties that we face.”

A tremendously effective and incredibly simple method Vaisman recommends is to notice the good things that people are doing and affirm them on a regular basis. “You can’t underestimate the importance of feeling that who we are and what we do matters. It doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t cost a penny.”

He said research shows that a positive mindset directly contributes to job performance, job satisfaction, engagement, and the overall sense of fulfillment at work, and leaders can promote positivity by making it a point to intentionally notice the important things staff do, the things that matter, and then celebrate them.

What Doesn’t Work

A lot of practices think tangible perks will help forestall burnout or help people feel better and thrive, whether it’s money or a parking space near the door. But that doesn’t actually do the job in the long term.

“A lot of those tangible things tend to be quick fixes, and some of them are necessary,” said Vaisman. Like a good wage. “We have to pay people for the value of their work. But I also think that’s a basic necessity. That’s not necessarily something that contributes to wellbeing in the long term.”

GettyImages-1293373244.jpgFinancial stress is a detractor from wellbeing, but there’s a point in time where you make enough and it’s not going to make a big difference. “Those kinds of things are what we call extrinsic or externalized motivators,” he said. “They’re blips that give us a spike of wellbeing.”

But at some point in time, because of what’s known as hedonic adaptation, those spikes cease to have an effect. Vaisman gives an example of this: “If you give somebody a raise or a bonus to help them feel happier at work, they eventually become accustomed to that raise or bonus, and then they need an even bigger one next time to have the same kind of boost, and then another—bigger—one, and before you know it, you’re chasing a goalpost that you can never reach.”

Vaisman loves the fact that a lot of practices do team-bonding events like pizza parties and says they’re important, but it’s a mistake to rely on them. “If that’s the only tool we’re pulling from the toolbox to create wellbeing in the veterinary space, we’re consistently setting ourselves up for failure,” Vaisman said. “We’re leaving out what seems to make the most difference: We’re leaving out the personal.”

What Are Practices with Thriving Teams Doing Differently?

Vaisman said his leadership workshops boil down to two important principles:

  1. Other people matter.
  2. Leadership is relationships.

“Period,” he said. “That’s it.”

Research shows that when people feel like they matter to their leader, both on a personal and a professional level, “that’s a team that’s high-performing and that’s an organization that’s likely to have long-term productivity and profitability above and beyond their competitors.”

That’s the big difference between practices that thrived during COVID and practices that didn’t, Vaisman noted. The ones that thrived were the ones where leaders “really, genuinely, authentically, and intentionally” leaned into the relationships with their staff and found ways to care about them as people—and care about their success.

How One Hospital Turned Things Around

Vaisman mentioned a large hospital he worked with in 2020 during the height of the pandemic that was able to turn the tide of discontent among their staff and help them thrive. “It was a big practice with a staff of 160 and a leadership team of 34, and they mounted a tremendously successful intervention.”

Vaisman helped them create a very simple check-in program where every person in the hospital was guaranteed to have somebody who’d gone through the leadership training sit down with them off the floor and, undistracted, once a month for roughly 10 minutes, just check in on them. They asked simple questions like, “Hey, how are things going? How are you doing? What are you proud of from this last month? Where are you struggling? Where could you use some extra support?”

“That’s it,” Vaisman said. “Once a month, and it made a huge difference in that practice. That’s what positive leadership is about.”

Other people matter. Leadership is relationships. 

Tony McReynolds is editor of AAHA’s award-winning newsletter, NEWStat.


Photo credits: doble-d/iStock via Getty Images; Ivan-balvan/iStock via Getty Images; Fly View Productions/E+ via Getty Images; FatCamera/iStock via Getty Images



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