Two years ago, Merck Animal Health published an eye-opening study that shed light on the large proportion of veterinarians experiencing emotional distress as a direct result of their occupation,1 bringing the terms “burnout” and “work-life balance” to the forefront of the industry’s vernacular. Since then, learning to spot signs of distress and manage the emotional demands of the job have become important topics addressed within veterinary practices, at conferences and in the media. So, how do veterinarians rate their mental health today?
What the survey found
In their collaborative follow-up study, the results of which were published last month, Merck, the AVMA and Brakke Consulting reexamined job satisfaction, compensation, burnout, substance use disorder, cyberbullying and suicide among veterinarians. More than 2,800 U.S. veterinarians—both practitioners and non-practitioners—participated in the online survey in October 2019. Here’s a snapshot of the results:2
- Wellbeing among veterinarians has remained relatively unchanged since the previous study (conducted in late 2017), with just over 9% of respondents in both surveys admitting to “suffering.”
- Wellbeing is worst among younger veterinarians, with 13% of 18- to 34-year-old respondents admitting to “suffering” and only 46% “flourishing.” Younger veterinarians are also more likely than any other age group to suffer serious psychological distress.
- Although the overall level of serious psychological distress remained relatively steady in the two years between surveys, significantly more women than men in the current survey indicated that they experience psychological distress (6.3% vs. 8.1%).
- Veterinarians have higher levels of burnout than physicians, despite working fewer hours.
- Veterinarians are much more likely than non-veterinarians to think about suicide and 2.7 times more likely to attempt it.
- Food animal practitioners have far better mental health than mixed-animal, companion animal, equine and nonpractitioners. Only 0.7% of food animal veterinarians said they experience serious psychological distress, compared with 6.4% of the overall veterinarian population.
“Our research shows that attitudes toward mental health in the veterinary field are improving, but we still have work to do as it relates to treatment,” Judson Vasconcelos, PhD, DVM, director of Veterinary and Consumer Affairs for Merck Animal Health, says in a press release about the study. “For example, this study found a significant and positive change in caring toward those with mental illness, but that there is still a large treatment gap.”
Despite the increased awareness, half of those surveyed who admitted to experiencing distress declined to seek treatment. According to Christine Royal, DVM, director of veterinary professional services at Merck Animal Health, these results shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.
“I wasn’t surprised by the findings,” Dr. Royal said in an interview with dvm360. “Because although we have been focused on [veterinary wellbeing] over the past couple of years, we’re still in the process of developing tools and resources, and identifying gaps so that we can figure out the best ways to help.”
The war rages on
Giving up the battle against burnout is not an option. It’s not even on the table. “One thing that is really evident to me is that this is not a simple problem; therefore, there is not a simple solution. It is multidimensional,” she explains. “Ten years down the road, as we reflect back, we’ll start to see changes and that’s what is important.”
Dr. Royal says she would like to see both practices and individual veterinary professionals take advantage of the myriad mental health resources available to them, noting that only 12% of the veterinarians surveyed said they’ve accessed those resources (see sidebar). But she has heard numerous personal stories that prove the heightened focus on wellbeing is having a positive impact on the profession. Nevertheless, she says, “big changes don’t happen overnight. We’re all busy, whether it be seeing patients, managing staff members or going from exam room to exam room. If you’re going to make larger changes within a practice, it takes time.”
Ready, set, start!
If you know you need to do something to reduce your stress level and get back to loving the job you love, but you don’t know where to begin, here are Dr. Royal’s top three recommendations:
- Develop a stress management plan. Based on key study findings, Dr. Royal recommends that all veterinary professionals have a stress management plan in place—and students should create one before graduation. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, she acknowledges, suggesting this article as a great place to start.3 One of the best ways to combat mounting stress is to make sure you have someone to talk to, keeping in mind that “being on social media is not socializing,” she says. Other important features of a well-rounded plan include practicing mindfulness and eating a balanced diet.
- Have a financial planner. This is vital across the board, Dr. Royal explains, whether you have student debt or are planning for the future. “Having someone to talk to about your finances is critically important.”
- Commit to work-life balance. Establishing boundaries for yourself between your career and your personal life was found to be one of the key predictors of high wellbeing. “Your work-life balance might look different than a colleague’s, so you need to figure out what works for you,” Dr. Royal says.
The profession is at an impasse
Every veterinary professional who attends a symposium on work-life balance or engages in discussions about mental health pushes the needle closer to creating a more positive and healthier experience for future veterinarians. Consistent with 2017 results, the current study revealed that despite high job satisfaction rates, 52% of those surveyed would not recommend the profession to others, citing high student debt, low pay and stress as the main reasons.
“As a veterinarian, I love my job but there are some negatives that go along with it. I am OK carrying that on myself,” Dr. Royal explains. “We’re such caregivers that we want to take care of those around us but don’t always do the best jobs of taking care of ourselves.”
Like many other veterinary professionals who are working to keep the conversation about mental health moving forward, Merck Animal Health and the AVMA hope that conversations about stress management are soon commonplace in both the classroom and the hospital, and that veterinary professionals will be able to detect signs of emotional distress within themselves as easily as they can diagnose flea allergy in a dog.
In support of AVMA’s veterinary wellness efforts, Merck Animal Health is making a second $100,000 commitment following up on its 2017 promise to support AVMA’s workplace wellbeing efforts and resources.
1. Schimmack U, Strand E, Lord L, et al. Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study. Merck Animal Health website: https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/pdfs/vca/MAH-Well-Being-Study.pdf. Published February 2018. Accessed February 5, 2020.
2. Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study 2020. Merck Animal Health website: https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/pdfs/vca/articles/veterinary-wellbeing-study-2020.pdf. Published January 2018. Accessed February 5, 2020.
3. Volk J, Strand E. 3 steps to a healthier team. dvm360 2018;49(10):34-35. Available at: merck-animal-health-usa.com/pdfs/vca/dvm360_Strand_Volk.pdf.