Mental Health: More Important Than Ever

With all the stressors in play against veterinary staff, it is more important than ever to take care of your team, and implement strategies that can lead to successully improving everyon’e mental health.

New Ideas to Help Keep Staff Mentally Healthy

The numbers are stark. According to the most recent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, conducted in 2021, less than half of those in the profession would recommend veterinary medicine as a career. Serious psychological distress is on the rise among veterinarians of all age groups, and nearly one-third of veterinary staff are likely to leave practice in the next two years.

“This number is staggering and should be a wake-up call to leadership in our veterinary community,” said Charles Hurty, DVM at Grove Veterinary Clinic, an AAHA-accredited clinic in Newport, Oregon. “Many veterinary practices have experienced a literal exodus of staff.”

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“I think all clinicians should be in therapy. It’s a safe space.”

—REBECCA BAKER, LCSW, METROPOLITAN ANIMAL SPECIALTY HOSPITAL

Hurty added it’s understood within the industry that many of those exit considerations are fueled by mental health concerns.

Sarah Wooten, DVM, who is now a veterinary specialist for Pumpkin Pet Insurance, worked as a veterinarian in an AAHA-accredited clinic until 2018. Wooten said stress isn’t the main reason she decided to leave clinic life, but it was a huge contributing factor. “Until you’ve been in it awhile, you don’t understand how stress will affect you,” said Wooten. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that part of myself and realized education was a better fit.”

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw extra stress upon veterinary healthcare workers.

“We were called essential workers and, in the same breath, literally shamed for the inconveniences and inefficiencies of the new practice models, such as curbside,” said Hurty. “Within this space of impossibility and distress arose a whole new menu of mental health challenges.”

As a result, many clinics, from small, locally owned clinics to large corporations, received their wake-up call and are trying to address mental health, not just to save employees from leaving the profession, but to literally help save some lives.

Building a Program from Scratch

Hurty said he was concerned with the issue of staff mental health well before the pandemic.

“My team and I were, like many others, feeling the effects of long emotional workdays and the resulting exhaustion of our compassion and empathy,” he noted. “We were practicing veterinary medicine and running this business with very minimal investment in personal and professional boundaries. Something fundamentally needed to change. Frankly, I was getting to a point where I was considering different options and thinking about making some changes in my own career and life.”

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“We were practicing veterinary medicine and running this business with very minimal investment in person and professional boundaries. Something fundamentally needed to change. Frankly, I was getting to a point where I was considering different options and thinking about making some changes in my own career and life.”

—CHARLES HURTY, DVM, GROVE VETERINARY CLINIC

Hurty said he finally had an epiphany. “We were experiencing what many would define as trauma; we needed to look at some outside resources. I think we all needed therapy.” Hurty began looking into what resources were available and said he found an “amazing” person to help. “I found someone who not only had the expertise to help, but also the desire to invest some serious energy into our veterinary team’s health,” said Hurty. “She was excited about developing a program that would help the team and hopefully, teams beyond our own.”

That person is Helen Beaman, LCSW. Beaman has spent the past five years working to destigmatize mental health. She had taken a keen interest in the veterinary industry owing to the high suicide rates.

“I’m passionate about training and educating and helping people take better care of their mental health,” said Beaman.

Beaman worked with Hurty to create a module-based program they could present to the five veterinarians then at the clinic (there are now six) and 21 staff members.

The practice began implementing the program in July 2021 by renting a room on a Saturday afternoon at a locally owned new restaurant and providing lunch at a cost of $600. “Developing the program didn’t cost us,” said Hurty. “Helen did it for us pro bono.” Hurty added they provide Beaman with a $100 stipend, which she donates to a local animal welfare group.

The sessions are held for two hours, and the four modules were presented one month apart, with periodic ongoing follow-ups.

“We decided to make it voluntary and held the first module on a Saturday afternoon. We had 100% participation,” said Hurty. “That’s amazing and I think speaks to how much this was needed.”

The modules are built as follows:

Module 1, basics: Defining anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout. Recognizing the symptoms and assuring staff they are not alone in their feelings. They were asked to tell what they learned about themselves during the pandemic. Also, defining suicide and how to recognize when it gets to that point.

Module 2, strategies: Basic cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, breathing strategies, meditation, visualization, grounding techniques, body awareness, diet, and exercise.

Module 3, recognizing triggers and additional techniques: Understanding stress and anxiety and how to dismantle and handle the situations. Changing the mindsets and approaches to problems. For example, a difficult client service moment is not described as “bad” or “impossible,” but as “not ideal.” Hurty added, “These are forward-thinking, mindfulness, solution-oriented approaches, goals, and purpose. This has really caught on in our practice, and we even laugh about it at times, which is the point. Laugh a little, lighten it up, figure it out, and move on.”

Module 4, boundary setting: Understanding the importance of boundaries and how to set them is a critically important lesson to learn in veterinary medicine, said Hurty.

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“Until you’ve been in it awhile, you don’t understand how stress will affect you. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that part of myself and realized education was a better fit.”

—SARAH WOOTEN, DVM, VETERINARY SPECIALIST, PUMPKIN PET INSURANCE

Hurty said they had at least 90% participation for all the subsequent module presentations, mostly due to scheduling conflicts, not due to lack of interest. Hurty added the clinic also provides money for staff to use for calming apps or any type of self-care, as well as providing staff a Wellness CE credit. Another component of the wellness focus are mandatory breaks during work hours. “There is a lot of data on the benefits of taking breaks throughout the day,” said Hurty. “There is no lunch or break shaming, and we encourage our staff not to feel guilty for taking their breaks.”

As to how it is working, he said that the new focus on mental health and the program have been anecdotally successful, but he can’t apply any measurements. “I would love to apply some analytics, but the measuring stick is more subjective,” said Hurty, who added the clinic didn’t have a high attrition rate before the program. “When we recognized and validated their feelings during the first module, there were a lot of tears,” said Hurty. “Communication is so much better; we talk about wellbeing. It literally comes up every day. People seem less triggered and can better work through the day.”

A Different Business Model

Ivan Zakharenkov, DVM, CEO of Galaxy Vets in New Brunswick, BC, founded Galaxy Vets with the mission to “return vet medicine back to the veterinarians and employees.” At the same time, he said they want to provide better access to care where and when it is needed. “We need to expand because there is such a shortage within the industry,” Zakharenkov said.

Zakharenkov was six years into his career when he started experiencing burnout. “I almost lost my life then,” he said, and he noted that the industry hasn’t gotten much better in the years since.

Zakharenkov said they are focused on making conditions better in the top three areas of concern within the industry:

Work/life balance: Zakharenkov said they are committed to providing flexible work schedules, even calling as few as 24-hour work weeks “full time” worthy of benefits. “Of course, staff who work fewer hours don’t make as much money, but we’re finding flexibility to spend more time with family is key,” Zakharenkov said. “We know there are many studies that show a direct correlation between long work hours and burnout. Truck drivers, pilots, and others limit their hours, but no one was doing it for veterinarians.” Zakharenkov said this has been particularly popular for young veterinarians who are also parenting. Other aspects of helping balance work and life are allowing everyone to rotate duties, as well as shifts.

A connection of core values with staff: Zakharenkov said clinics across the United States are selling to the corporation, giving the hospital financial freedom, as well as a personal connection to management through systems, such as apps, much like the ones Uber drivers use to rate their shifts. “Our staff has a direct line to management, and they can present ideas and also implement them.”

Pay: Zakharenkov said they realized they couldn’t just throw more pay at veterinarians and staff and have it fix everything. However, it helps that Galaxy veterinarians and their staff aren’t set up on commission pay, everyone owns a stake in the company from the doctors to kennel staff, and no one is required to sign a noncompete.

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Read the Study

For more information on veterinary wellbeing and the AVMA/Merck study, go to vetwellbeing.com

Zakharenkov said the company just started forming in the fall of 2021, so there aren’t yet many metrics to gauge how this business model is working against attrition rates and overall employee satisfaction. Galaxy Vets currently has 50 employees and had just purchased their first three clinics when this interview was conducted. They hope to have 15–18 clinics by the end of the year.

He said one early metric has been the interest shown in their company by prospective veterinarians and staff. In the four months preceding this interview, he said the company received 1,150 applications over a four-month period. They get 50–100 applications per week.

“At least 90% of clinics are short at least one veterinarian, and I think so many people being interested in our model means people are attracted to what we are doing.”

Hiring a Social Worker

Rebecca Baker, LCSW, at the Metropolitan Animal Specialty Hospital in Los Angeles, California, said hiring a staff social worker has helped her colleagues at the clinic deal with everything from clients who are having to say goodbye to their pets, to burnout, to even their own grief when several staff members lost loved ones during the pandemic. “I don’t personally believe in taking on the role of therapist,” said Baker. “I provide bridge services, helping them between crisis and stability and then provide that hand off to the services they need.” Baker also provides talks and workshops to staff on dealing with burnout, mental health, and suicide ideation.

Baker consults not only with staff but also with clients who are having a difficult time dealing with their pet’s illness. “I act as a liaison, taking that burden off staff, which helps staff deal with stress in an indirect way.”

The final part of Baker’s job involves listening to staff’s concerns and bringing those concerns and ideas to upper management. “I advocate for staff, in a general way, so people feel freer to voice themselves,” said Baker.

One thing Baker said she’s had to do in her role is make sure she establishes clear boundaries, as well as attend therapy to relieve her own stress. “I think all clinicians should be in therapy,” she said. “It’s a safe space.” 


GettyImages-1146913540.jpgQuick Tips for Improving Mental Health

Jill Lauri, MSW, MBA, a professional animal communicator and veterinary coach located in New York City, said if you want to help improve the mental health of your employees, you can start by taking these steps:

  • Meet with staff regularly, establishing an open and safe environment to discuss issues and concerns.
  • Implement a process before the clinic opens each morning to do a calming, grounding, and visualization exercise. “This really can set a positive tone and energy for the day,” Lauri said. “There are different methods and exercises, but the point is to visualize the day going smoothly.”
  • Commit to the process of sharing. “Make meeting with staff an ongoing process, but you have to make it fun and engaging and make your staff feel inspired to share.”
 
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Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a writer living her dream life in a small cabin in the Ozark Mountains. She shares her life with her rescued pack of dogs. She is the author of Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480 Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband, and One Remote. You can see more of her work at kerrifivecoatcampbell.com.

Photo credits: dragana991/iStock via Getty Images Plus; PixelsEffect/E+ via Getty Images;;Portra/E+ via Getty Images, FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images; PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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