ACVC 2018: Recognizing and Remedying Staff Brownout/Burnout

October 11, 2018
American Veterinarian Editorial Staff

Learn what to do before a team member reaches the breaking point.

Burnout does not happen overnight, and it’s not simply the result of working too many hours in the clinic. As small animal practitioner and media personality Ruth MacPete, DVM, explained yesterday in her session at ACVC, burnout is a multidimensional response with many complex causes, and is one of the most important wellness issues affecting the veterinary community. As Dr. MacPete referenced in her lecture, a recent survey of American Veterinary Medical Association Convention attendees found that 85% of respondents felt they were stressed and burned out. Worse yet, she continued, is the statistic that the veterinary profession experiences the highest rate of suicide, much higher than physicians and dentists.

Even before people reach full burnout—or the tip of the iceberg—they experience brownout, which is analogous to what happens when there is a drop in electricity. Oftentimes, veterinary professionals in the brownout stage will have a decline in energy levels and interest toward their work. “They have not yet reached full burnout, but they are encroaching it,” she said. Brownout and burnout exist along a continuum, so it’s important for people to understand both of them and what they can do to help a peer displaying common signs. People display brownout as cynicism and waning enthusiasm due to the realization that their job is not perfect. In this stage, people are tired, irritable with coworkers who don’t pull their weight, and frustrated with clients.

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Burnout results from ongoing brownout that escalates to a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. As people become more frustrated and disillusioned with their job, they become detached, careless, and depressed. Often, Dr. MacPete explained, someone experiencing burnout will be unusually quiet, appear increasingly unhappy, and start to withdraw from responsibilities or miss work entirely. “Every day for someone experiencing this is a bad day.”

It is possible to prevent brownout/burnout from affecting your team, Dr. MacPete encouraged. Tackling the problem, she said, stems from understanding how brownout/burnout can occur in the veterinary profession, becoming familiar with the common signs, and knowing the steps that can be taken to help coworkers in need.

“Becoming familiar with the signs of brownout and burnout allows you to intervene early,” Dr. MacPete said, “before the employee reaches a complete state of exhaustion.”

How Can Burnout/Brownout Affect Veterinarians?

People often wonder how burnout can happen to people in veterinary medicine. We have the best job in the world. How can people who have always dreamed of working with animals become disillusioned and get to the point of burnout?

“The fact is,” Dr. MacPete said, “veterinary medicine isn’t perfect. The bottom line is that it’s not all about puppies and kittens; veterinary medicine involves people, too.” And working with difficult clients, and sometimes even having to take on a sales role to convince pet owners why their animal needs a particular treatment, can be daunting. On top of that, clinics are busy, they are short staffed, and there is little praise or job growth. After a few years, some people begin to realize that these are aspects they didn’t sign up for when they dreamed of helping animals.

When Brownout/ Burnout Occurs

If you notice that employees or coworkers are exhibiting signs of brownout/burnout, Dr. MacPete said there are actionable

steps you can take to help:

  • Reach out and let them know that you care.
  • Let them know that what they are feeling is normal.
  • Remind them of the good aspects of veterinary medicine.
  • Give people a change of scenery within the workplace, even if for a short period of time. For instance, temporarily move a team member who is dealing with a lot of angry clients to the back of the office where he or she can attend to kennels.
  • Assist them in getting professional help.
  • If all else fails, suggest that they consider a new career.

How to Prevent Brownout/Burnout

The ultimate goal is to reach team members before they experience the frightening signs of brownout that evolve into burnout. Dr. MacPete suggested providing your veterinary team with the following practical, preventive tips.

Be Realistic.

Try your best and work your hardest, but know when to let go. “There will be some animals that you just can’t help—it is a part of the profession that must be accepted.

Set Limits.

It’s common to experience long, busy days, but it’s important to schedule breaks for yourself throughout the day. “Ideally, get out of the clinic and go for a walk,” Dr. MacPete suggested. “It will refresh you physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

Maintain Balance.

Make time for friends, family, and activities outside of work. “Having balance helps you stay grounded and lets you derive meaning and self-worth outside of your profession,” she said.

Know That It's OK to Walk Away.

Your happiness is worth more than the distress of being unhappy at work. “If you need a break,” she said, “take a break.” You may find that a vacation is what you needed to reignite your enthusiasm for your career. Or you may discover that veterinary medicine is no longer the right path for you. Your health and happiness are the most important considerations.