Working within the veterinary industry is not for the feint-hearted. Despite the perception that veterinary professionals get to play with cute puppies and kittens all day, the reality is very different. Veterinarians endure high levels of work stress and their profession has one of the higher rates of suicide—about four times higher than the general population and twice as likely as other health professionals. Put another way, this rate equates to roughly one every 12 weeks (Hamilton, 2016). Despite the pressures of the profession, it can be as rewarding and personally satisfying as any other. My research focused on developing supportive strategies for veterinary practitioners to enhance their work engagement and well-being.
Veterinary professionals are subjected to, amongst other things, abuse from clients, compassion fatigue, financial concerns, and the often difficult and emotional task of euthanizing animals (Hamilton, 2016). They are required to remain composed, client after client. Imagine the distress of putting someone’s beloved pet to sleep in one consultation, only to step straight into another consultation with a difficult client who is abusive. All this without so much as a five-minute break to catch a breath—they are expected to remain professional and composed without the chance to process what has just happened.
There have been many changes to the profession over the past 30 years, including gender shifts, and decreases in income levels and status (Macwhirter, 2002). Currently, there are many job vacancies advertised both within Australia and overseas, and seemingly not enough applicants to fill the places. With the demands of the job taking its toll on many practitioners, there is a need to focus on developing workplace strategies to retain them in the profession. My research involved consulting practitioners to learn about strategies that practice owners may implement to support their staff. Here are some of the recommendations from the research:
- Acknowledge the “shadow side” of the profession. It is useful to have avenues for staff to openly discuss the stressors they are facing. Doing this can help to “normalise” the issues and prevent feeling ostracised or having the perception they are the only one feeling this way.
- Provide information. Provide an EAP service or the contact details for a qualified and experienced counsellor or psychologist who is trusted to work with clients in this field.
- Develop a culture of wellness. Make sure staff take their breaks. Taking regular breaks can be challenging due to the nature of the job, but breaks are essential for maintaining wellbeing.
- Consider other incentives. Many veterinarians say it is not always about the money (from working overtime), and there are other things that can be more personally valuable to them (e.g., time off in lieu, a rotation system for working overtime, or small gifts that mean taking time out, such as a movie voucher).
Staff retention is more important than ever in the veterinary industry. Fostering a healthy workplace culture is an integral part of organisational wellbeing. There is a need to reduce the stigma involved with practitioners speaking up and seeking help, so that they can receive the support they often need and deserve. After all, veterinary professionals contribute a great deal to society and industries.
Hamilton, Nadine D. (2016). A psycho-educational intervention program for veterinary practitioners: learning to cope with being a veterinarian. [Thesis (PhD/Research)]
Macwhirter, P. (2002). A life course approach to veterinary science. Australian Veterinary Journal, 80(8), 454-455
About the Author:
Dr Nadine Hamilton is a psychologist who completed a Doctor of Education research degree that focused on developing strategies to enhance veterinary practitioners’ career engagement and wellbeing.