Technicians pets can help reduce burnout

November 6, 2019
Julie Mullins
Julie Mullins

After 10 years working in the veterinary field as a veterinary assistant and trainer, Julie felt the call back to school to complete her education. She completed her Bachelor's in Psychology and her Masters in Professional Counseling at Liberty University. She is passionate about helping individuals and families achieve healthy functioning and is convinced that animals should be a part of that journey. Julie observed the power of the human-animal bond while in the veterinary field and has further witnessed the power of the presence of her own dog, Ed, in the counseling sessions she conducts.Julie is also a grandmother, a runner, a business owner, a photographer and a lover of coffee, chocolate, wine and water.

Firstline, Firstline January February 2020, Volume 16, Issue 1

Your own animals at home can be a tremendous support in so many ways to make sure you stay happy and healthy in your veterinary career. Just dont ignore the warning signs of burnout if you see them.

Working in veterinary medicine is stressful. I know, you're shocked-tell you something you don't know, right? And dealing with high stress levels day after long day, week after long week, has the potential to turn you into a bubbling cauldron of potential burnout. The World Health Organization says signs of burnout include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.1 I've seen all of these in past coworkers at one time or another. Chronic workplace stress that hasn't been managed successfully causes the problem and can lead to anxiety, depression, substance misuse, relationship problems and increasing risk of suicide. We must do something about it.

You've heard of many self-care methods: exercise, appropriate sleep, good nutrition, time with friends, meditation, rotation of tasks at work (e.g. not always being the technician to assist on euthanasia cases), counseling or peer support, and time with your own pets (to name a few).

Let's take a look at that last one-how your pet can reduce your stress, rejuvenate you, and boost your mood and empathy level to improve your response at work while at the same time giving you a renewed sense of purpose. 

They increase your oxytocin and reduce your cortisol

The hormone cortisol is elevated during periods of stress-your pooch can reduce that just by being in the room. You knew they made you feel good and you loved them, but increased oxytocin too? What a great perk. Oxytocin is the hormone recognized for its role in bonding, socialization and stress relief. One study demonstrated a significant increase in levels of this stress-relieving hormone when owners stroked their dogs after a stressful day of work.2

Erin Starace, RVT, told me she always suspected this was the case: “At the end of every day, I get to go home and squeeze my babies. Just this act helps me tremendously. I can literally feel myself calm down when I hug my babies.”

Gina Hyson, RVT, veterinary practice consultant and user experience researcher with IDEXX Laboratories, says that after a long day she feels her pets' affection, and it gives her a sense that “no matter what happens I still have their love.”

Pets can contribute to burnout, too

If descriptions of burnout resonate with how you feel, please reach out for help. When you start feeling burnout, it's important to note that sometimes those awesome animals you're responsible for at home and at work-while providing so many mental health and workplace benefits-can also be an additional burden if you're running on empty.

Two veterinarians I spoke to shared two different moments when pets were a drain: when the pets were ailing and turned into just one more animal to take care of, and when pets' behavior caused relational stress (like barking that drives a spouse crazy).

When a veterinary professional is already experiencing burnout, everything is harder. Please reach out for help if you're experiencing anxiety, depression, substance misuse, relationship problems or suicidal thoughts. Speak to your hospital manager or another colleague. Use mental health services provided by your workplace or your health insurance plan.

Do not ignore your pain. There is help. They get you moving

Our companion animals require us to interact and engage in activities. These interactions can be a source of stress relief for pets and the family members who live with them. Getting outside together, exercising and spending time with the animals and people we love have all been demonstrated to reduce stress.

Hyson says she does “everything she can” with her pets: “This past weekend we went to an art festival, hiked a new trail and started agility classes," she says. "We tend to think about our activities in relation to the care that our pet needs [and] what will be good activities for all of us, puppy included.”

They help renew your passion for the job 

That loving connection with pets improves your feelings of love and compassion and refills your tank so you can go back in for another day of work with a renewed sense of purpose.

Starace says she interacts with every pet at work as if they were hers: “I treat them with care, compassion, soft words and gentle touch as I would my own. If I didn't have my own pet, I wonder if I would lose sight of that a little bit.”

Researchers agree that owning a companion animal helps veterinary professionals recharge and realign with the reasons they entered the field.3 This benefit reduces the risk of burnout by bolstering the sense of care, compassion and empathy for clients and patients.

They help you build trust with clients 

When veterinarians and veterinary technicians talk with clients, they share personal stories about their own pets that have been demonstrated to build trust.3

“Pet ‘stories' help [clients] relate to what you're talking about,” Hyson says. Increased trust leads to improved positivity and feelings of self-efficacy-feelings crucial to battling negative thinking, cynicism and mental distance, which can be signs of burnout.3

They can help with burnout

Sounds like your pets are magical furry pills, doesn't it? (Don't swallow them, please. They'll give you horrible hairballs.)

“My pets affect how I treat other patients and my work, because they impact my wellbeing and happiness,” Starace says.

Thank your pets when you get home. Give them a pat on the head, increase your oxytocin and feel the love. When you're back in the trenches tomorrow, whisper another thank-you for the renewed sense of purpose your own pets give you in your work. 

References

1. World Health Organization. Burn-out an “occupation” phenomenon.” May 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/. Accessed Oct. 30, 2019.

2. Miller SC, Kennedy CC, Devoe DC, et al. An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoos 2009;22(1):31-42.

3. Hanrahan C, Sabo BM, Robb P. Secondary traumatic stress and veterinarians: Human-animal bonds as psychosocial determinants of health. Traumatology 2017;28(1):73-82.

After 10 years working in the veterinary field as a veterinary assistant and trainer, Julie Mullins felt the call back to school to complete her education. She completed her Bachelor's in Psychology and her Master's in Professional Counseling at Liberty University. She is passionate about helping individuals and families achieve healthy functioning and is convinced that animals should be a part of that journey. Julie observed the power of the human-animal bond while in the veterinary field and has further witnessed the power of the presence of her own dog, Ed, in the counseling sessions she conducts. Julie is also a grandmother, a runner, a business owner, a photographer and a lover of coffee, chocolate, wine and water.

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