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Veterinary Forum December 2007 (Vol 24, No 12)

Business Skills: Stress management for veterinarians and their practice team

by A. D. Elkins, DVM, MS, DACVS

    In human medicine, stress and burnout are recognized as major production obstacles. Therefore, most hospitals offer programs to deal with stress and burnout. In contrast, veterinarians are relatively isolated from their peers and a structured stress management program.

    Fortunately, most veterinarians seem to cope well with their daily stress. The environment in a veterinary clinic or hospital, however, is becoming increasingly more stressful as client expectations have risen. Enhancement of the human–animal bond has been great for the profession, but the emotional value placed on animals can add to the veterinarians' stress level.

    As practice owners, many veterinarians are responsible for keeping the practice team emotionally healthy — they must be aware of the signs of burnout in themselves as well as their employees. Table 1 lists many of the symptoms a person may exhibit when experiencing burnout.

    Throughout my 36-year career in veterinary medicine, I have published several articles as well as a book on stress management. On four occasions, I have experienced burnout, but was fortunate because I recognized the symptoms and was able to redirect my efforts toward a different arena while still practicing veterinary medicine.

    Veterinarians who are involved in intensive surgical procedures and are type A personalities typically place a lot of stress on themselves and, therefore, tend to burn out faster than others in the profession. To cope, veterinarians must recognize the symptoms and formulate a plan or develop coping techniques to handle stressful situations.

    Veterinarians are just as prone to burnout as other health care providers. According to one source, female veterinarians scored higher on a stress questionnaire than males did, which may reflect their family responsibilities outside the profession. The very traits that make people good veterinarians — attention to detail, deferral of gratification, compassion, desire to give 100% effort and desire to please — also set them up for burnout.

    Unfortunately, taking a vacation will not resolve a stressful situation. Rather, it needs to be dealt with every day. Veterinarians must develop a routine in which stress can be relieved while emotions or individual spirit are rejuvenated. Without achieving this goal, some degree of burnout or compassion overload may occur.

    When people decide to become veterinarians, they usually understand that they have selected a field that can foster a more stressful life than the average person faces. Thus, this topic needs more attention from the veterinary community as a whole. Training programs and national meetings should provide veterinary staff with the tools needed to deal with stress and burnout.

    Recognition that a problem exists is half of the solution. The other half involves implementing preventive measures to ensure that stressful situations are not repeated and allowed to fester. It is almost like developing a wellness program, only instead of focusing on senior pet health, the center of attention is the emotional health of the entire veterinary team.

    Suggested reading:

    Brackenridge S: Clinical Textbook for Veterinary Technicians, ed 3. Philadelphia, WB Saunders, 1994.

    Elkins AD, Brackenridge S: Managing Stress in Veterinary Medicine. Santa Barbara, Calif, Veterinary Practice Publishing, 1997.

    Elkins AD, Elkins JR: Professional burnout and veterinarians. JAAHA 1983;17:849-852.

    Elkins AD, Elkins JR: Professional burnout among veterinarians. How serious a problem? Vet Med 1987;82:1245-1250.

    Reudenberger HJ: Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement. Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Press, 1982.

    NEXT: Clinical Report: Dealing with outdated behavior recommendations


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