Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian by Dr Nadine Hamilton

Psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton, founder of the charity Love Your Pet Love Your Vet, has spent the last ten years researching why the mental wellbeing of vets has become so compromised and what can be done about it. In her new book Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian she presents an examination of the problem, the ways vet mental health is influenced by their daily work and the science we can use to tackle it head-on. Drawing from the fields of positive psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy, career construction theory, and resiliency studies, she outlines a promising new weapon in the profession’s fight against suicide.

Below you will find an excerpt from the book. This is a book for every veterinarian, veterinary student, veterinary nurse and those that care for them.

Book Excerpt

When you ask a veterinarian about their job most will answer along the lines that it is a rewarding, but challenging and demanding career. They might also say that to be successful you must have a passion for or a clinical interest in animals, have great interpersonal skills and possess a strong work ethic. Many vets will happily recount a childhood passion for animals or a childhood pet that led them to eventually pursuing a career as a vet.

Not surprisingly then, many people have the perception that being a vet is a wonderful job because you get to play with kittens and puppies all day long. There is also a perception that becoming a vet means you will be very well paid. Certainly, most pet owners’ experiences with vet bills lead them to believe that someone is making a good living.

Sadly, these assumptions are not the stuff of reality. While it can be a rewarding and satisfying career, there is also a ‘dark side’ to the profession for the unwary.

Veterinarians have long been considered the guardians of animal welfare and health. In earlier times, they were required to work in professional isolation at all times of the day and night and expected to work with all species of animals. Today they work in an ever more diverse environment and ­specialist areas. The effects of working long hours, performing euthanasia on animals, emotional pressure, financial issues, unrealistic expectations, and dealing with distressed clients place considerable stress on both the vet themselves and their families at home.

Failure to cope with stress can lead to emotional problems such as depression and suicide, physical problems such as psoriasis and being vulnerable to infection, and behavioural issues such as irritability and anger. Working the unsocial and long hours that are generally required, juggling the emotional involvement with patients but also being able to detach from them emotionally, as well as the need to be self-critical but balancing this with the ability not to be too critical, can be a risk factor to the onset of depression. With a lot of vets tending to be perfectionists, there is also the risk of many practitioners being workaholics without strong support systems. This can lead to a tendency for vets to hide things that are bothering them and continue to push on, ignoring their symptoms.

Within Australia a veterinarian will commit suicide approximately every 12 weeks. In the United Kingdom, rates of suicide have been reported at least three times the general population rate. In the United States, recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that when compared to the general population in the United States, female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely to commit suicide. Similar statistics have also been reported in New Zealand, with the New Zealand Veterinary Association stating that the vet profession worldwide is one of the leading professions in suicide rates.

Research has shown that a person’s coping strategies to deal with stress can cover the range from dangerously self-destructive such as drug and alcohol abuse to highly effective evidence-based strategies stemming from applied psychology such as mindfulness and positive psychology. Yet research specific to the veterinary profession has been thin on the ground. Little has been done to provide well-researched, appropriate, and adequate intervention strategies for vets other than the provision of telephone support, crisis lines, and limited cognitive behavioural therapy strategies.

If we are to progress research into vet wellbeing and attempt to find effective solutions that can help prepare and empower those within the profession to deal with the realities of working as a vet, we need to delve deeper into the real-life issues that are hindering wellbeing. Dealing with ‘band-aid’ solutions or ‘tip of the iceberg’ situations is extremely unlikely to generate significant, lasting, psychological change. We need to get to the core or root of the problem and deal with these issues (as uncomfortable as this may be for some people) if we want things to change effectively. This concern is not going away and can no longer be hidden under the table with an ‘all is well’ attitude.

The reality is that whether we acknowledge the sad, hurtful, and even traumatic things that have happened in our lives or not, it doesn’t change the reality of what happened. The more you avoid dealing with them, the bigger and more powerful they can seem. When you can safely acknowledge and accept the reality that they happened, and work through these issues with someone qualified to help you through this, real change can occur. This is where I strongly advocate for support from an appropriately qualified and experienced professional (such as a psychologist and/or psychiatrist) to help distressed vets work through their issues in a safe, supportive, and caring environment.

What is also needed are effective proven and beneficial programs being provided to vets to assist them in dealing with the everyday demands of their profession — a psychological toolbox of resources they can refer to when required.

About the Author

Psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton has spent the last ten years researching why the mental wellbeing of vets has become so compromised and what can be done about it. In her own private practice, she has helped many vets develop better coping strategies to get on top of stress and psychological fatigue to avoid burnout and suicide. She also works with veterinary practice managers and owners to increase wellbeing, productivity, and retention in the workplace. She is also the proud founder of Love Your Pet Love Your Vet, a not-for-profit charity raising awareness about the issues within the veterinary industry and reducing stigma in veterinary professionals seeking help. 

If you’d like to purchase ‘Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian’ head HERE today.