Beyond the EAP

Veterinary professionals can “give ‘til it hurts,” sacrificing their mental health and wellbeing while helping pets and the people who love them. In this article, veterinary social workers and other wellness experts share tips on ways to bolster mental health in the day-to-day and why it’s so important.

By Jen Reeder

Protecting the Mental Wellbeing of Yourself and Your Team in the Day-to-Day

After over a decade working as a registered veterinary technician, Kathleen Dunbar, RVT, VTS, MSW, realized she needed to make a change—not by leaving the industry, but by learning how to support it.

“What I kept noticing was the gap in meeting the human needs of the profession,” she said.

So she earned a master’s degree in social work, and now works as a veterinary social worker at AAHA-accredited Carnegy Animal Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Dunbar supports the staff in a variety of ways, like lightening their “emotional load” and associated stress by leading pet loss support groups for clients and offering one-on-one counseling to those really struggling with grief or end-of-life decisions. She also offers training to staff, leads psychoeducational workshops, and offers virtual support to veterinary professionals in all four Atlantic provinces in Canada.

Demand for her services has only grown as the pandemic exacerbated longtime challenges like burnout, stress, exhaustion, perfectionism, and compassion fatigue.

“The need is definitely there, and the services need to be offered,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I really believe that a social worker needs to be onsite at every animal hospital.”

That ideal scenario isn’t likely to be realized anytime soon. Meanwhile, burnout alone is costing the industry up to two billion dollars each year in turnover and reduced hours from veterinarians and veterinary technicians, according to a study published last year titled “The Economic Cost of Burnout in Veterinary Medicine.”Doctor fitting a snack in between appointments

So what can veterinary professionals do in the day-to-day to protect and bolster the mental well-being of both their teams and themselves?

Veterinary social workers and other wellness experts have plenty of ideas.

Back to Basics

Meeting our body’s most basic needs is a good place to start, according to Angie Arora, MSW, RSW, a veterinary social worker who teaches a course on “Acute Self Care” for veterinary professionals.

“When your body needs to go to the bathroom, are you going? When you’re feeling thirsty, are you drinking water? When you need to close your eyes for 10 seconds, are you doing it? For most people in the profession—and we understand why—they’re not,” she said. “What starts to happen inside of their bodies is they’re actually starting to train their brains not to trust those internal cues.”

Angie Arora, MSW, RSW
Angie Arora,

To retrain her brain to understand what her body needs is important, one recent client started keeping water bottles in multiples parts of the hospital, and snacks next to her desk. That way, even if she can’t take time for lunch, she can quickly nosh on trail mix to give her sustenance when she has a minute at her computer.

From there, people can learn to recognize when their body is in fight, flight, or freeze mode and act accordingly, Arora said. For instance, after an argument with a coworker, some of her clients feel their heart beating and retreat to a washroom to do squats or air box for 30 seconds to relieve the stress. Other incidents might call for a deep breath. The key is recognizing what’s happening in the body, and what you might need in the moment.

Checking In

Individuals can also recognize when a colleague might need a break and check in with them, like when a client says something racist to a BIPOC member of the team. Arora noted there is a direct link between chronic stress and racial trauma, so any attempt to address equity issues in a practice will have a positive impact on employee mental health.

“Do concrete things if you have folks on your team whose communities are living through collective trauma,” she advised.

“Organizational care, team care, and self-care are equally important. If we have a commitment and a buy-in at all of those levels, change is very much possible.”

—Angie Arora, MSW, RSW

For example, last year when massive floods deluged Pakistan, a practice she works with had several team members whose families lost everything. So leadership offered them breaks and covered shifts to give them time to touch base with their loved ones in Pakistan.

“If we really want to address the mental health and well-being of folks in this profession, we have to have an equal commitment of the practices starting to do things different, and individuals reaching out for the support they need to build their own capacity to respond to the stress,” Arora said. “Organizational care, team care, and self-care are equally important. If we have a commitment and a buy-in at all of those levels, change is very much possible.”

It’s an opinion shared by Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPHSA, CPPC, CCFP, founder of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants and former chief medical and wellbeing officer at Veterinary United.

Phil Richmond, DVM,

“I like to look at it from a ‘me, we, and us’ perspective,” he said.

He likened the importance of wearing a lead vest while taking x-rays to protect from physical harm to taking steps to prevent psychological harm.

One way to do that is gathering as a team at the end of the day for the “What Went Well?” positive psychology exercise, according to Richmond.


“You do a huddle at the end of the day and say, ‘Everybody go around and share one thing that went really well and how you played a part in that happening,’” he explained. “The way our minds work is that good stuff slides off of us like Teflon and the bad stuff sticks like Velcro. So we have to be really intentional about honoring the good things that happened and reflecting on those.”

Richmond is passionate about raising awareness of the value of daily self-care before reaching a crisis point based on his own experiences.

“The way our minds work is that good stuff slides off of us like Teflon and the bad stuff sticks like Velcro. So we have to be really intentional about honoring the good things that happened and reflecting on those.”

—Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPHSA, CPPC, CCFP

In 2008, personal issues compounded by stressors as a veterinarian led him to a point where he didn’t feel like he could go on. Alcohol seemed like the only tool he had. Fortunately, his team recognized what was going on and knew about available programs.

“The physician’s health program helped save my life and got me into treatment,” he said. “I’m alive because I was a veterinarian. I learned tools of resiliency and changing my thinking and ways of self-care. Not only did those tools help save my life, but they helped me love veterinary medicine again.”

Now he’s devoted to normalizing conversations about substance use disorders to decrease the stigma—he noted an estimated 12–15% of veterinary professionals will meet criteria for alcohol or substance use disorder at some point in their careers—as well as mentoring early-career veterinarians, who can face a higher risk of serious psychological distress. He serves on the advisory board for MentorVet.

Good Practice: Stream of Consciousness Writing

Short bursts of journaling—just a few times a week for 15 minutes in the morning—can help us stay calmer during the day and help recognize our thoughts and feelings, according to Kathleen Dunbar, RVT, VTS, MSW. Using pen and paper, write whatever you’re thinking of without worrying about spelling or grammar. Then rip up the paper for a cathartic release.

“We hear about the suicide issue and we hear about the mental health challenges, but this is also a beautiful profession,” Richmond said. “I want the next generation of people to be able to have healthy and happy pets, and I want the next generation of veterinary professionals to be able to have access to the tools that helped save my life.”

Unique challenges can arise at different stages of a career in veterinary medicine, according to Sally Jo VanOstrand, LMSW, who started offering a pet loss support group and other veterinary social worker services in 2018 at AAHA-accredited Stack Veterinary Hospital in Syracuse, New York, which was a 2022 finalist for AAHA Practice of the Year.

For instance, some veterinarians nearing retirement might feel anxious and want to keep a foot in the door in medicine, so they might decide to work or volunteer at an animal shelter or spay/neuter clinic between travel and other leisure activities.

Impending parenthood can also cause anxiety, particularly for veterinarians with workaholic tendencies trying to balance everything.

Veterinary assistant who is stress out

Signs you need to take a break soon include jaw clenching, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, feeling like a weight is pressing down, tingly feelings in your hands, or a clenched fist.

“When it comes to motherhood or fatherhood, the biggest thing that you can do to help sustain yourself is to understand that you’re going to need support,” VanOstrand advised. “Keep your support line open and talk to them when you need help. Even if it’s ‘I’m going to need somebody to pick someone up for basketball practice.’”

No matter one’s age, VanOstrand recommends developing a high level of compassion while also keeping boundaries—which can be challenging when teams are short-staffed and patient loads have increased so much during the pandemic.

How to Hire a Veterinary Social Worker

Job listings on a smart phone

Augusta O’Reilly, LCSW, president of the International Association of Veterinary Social Work (IAVSW), said the field is rapidly growing.

“It’s an upside to the pandemic: people realized just how important mental health is, and how they need that advocate,” she said.

To hire a veterinary social worker through Indeed or LinkedIn, O’Reilly recommends using the term “veterinary social worker” rather than “therapist” or “social worker.”

Additionally, IAVSW maintains a Listserv with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s veterinary social work program to connect hiring managers with VSWs. The organization will post job listings on the Listserv and newsletter.

“The veterinary profession is one that will give and give and give,” O’Reilly said. “We need to protect them. And one of the many ways to do that is by working with a veterinary social worker.”

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For instance, if a pet owner calls with an emergency but the day is entirely full, instead of simply saying “sorry” and hanging up, she suggests offering a list of other animal hospitals that might be able to help.

She also hopes veterinary professionals will practice patience with themselves while learning to recognize signs in their body that they need to take a break soon, such as jaw clenching, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, feeling like a weight is pressing down, tingly feelings in your hands, or a clenched fist.

“This is usually a sign that you’re becoming overwhelmed, and your body is telling you that you need to take a break. Step away from this and regroup,” VanOstrand advised.

The break could involve stepping outside for a breath of fresh air or into a wellness center if available. Stack Veterinary Hospital’s wellness area includes a zen garden, aromatherapy, and a massage chair.

“I think the veterinary field is full of the most brilliant, compassionate people on the planet,” she said. “I also think that itself bears its own mental load. So learning ways and techniques to better navigate having those extra superpowers is always a good idea.”

Melyssa Allen, MA, CHBC, DACLM, veterinary well-being coach and owner of Mind-Body-Thrive Lifestyle in Orlando, Florida, teaches an online, self-guided course called Vet Calm to improve stress resiliency. She feels caregivers in veterinary medicine excel at giving others compassion—pets, pet parents, and coworkers—but that it can be more challenging for them to silence an inner critic and offer compassion to themselves.

Melyssa Allen, MA,CHBC, DACLM
Melyssa Allen, MA,

“Finding ways to comfort and support ourselves like we would a good friend is going to be a lot more helpful in getting through challenges in life, but also in making sustainable changes to your lifestyle as well,” she shared.

She counsels clients on the “Six Pillars of Health”—physical activity, nutrition, stress management, healthy sleep, positive social connections, and avoidance of risky substances—to enhance stress resilience and reduce burnout.

“I think the veterinary field is full of the most brilliant, compassionate people on the planet.”

—Sally Jo VanOstrand, LMSW

Allen would also like to break the stigma around going to a therapist. She advises “shopping around” for a good fit on websites like Often therapists offer a free 15-minute video or phone consultation, she added.

“I know a lot of times people say you need to take care of yourself so you can take care of everyone else in your life, but truly, you just deserve to take care of yourself,” she said. “I have an immense amount of gratitude for the veterinary professionals out there.”

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is extremely grateful for the veterinary professionals who do so much for pets, and the wellness professionals who support them.

Photo credits: ©AAHA/Alison Silverman, Traimak_Ivan/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Angie Arora, MSW, RSW, Photo courtesy of Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPHSA, CPPC, CCFP, monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Image by on Freepik, PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Espejo



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