Many of us believe we were “called” to the veterinary profession.
Our love and compassion for animal welfare runs deep in our soul. A plethora of evidence-based career advice in both business and psychology literature supports that conclusion – yes indeed, employees who are passionate about what they do will be both happier and more productive at work (Vallerand, L., Charest, & Paquet, 2010).
So, we should be the happiest, most satisfied professionals in the world, right??
Unfortunately, over half (52%) of our colleagues would not recommend a career in veterinary medicine (Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study 2020) (Volk, Schimmack, Strand, Lord, & Colin W. Siren, 2018). Both the 2018 and the recently released 2020 Merck Veterinary Well Being Studies have highlighted some of the sad truths about our profession – specifically those who practice clinical veterinary medicine.
Veterinarians have a higher rate of both suicide and burnout when compared to the general population as well as human physicians. Veterinary groups shown with the least wellbeing and increased attributes of burnout are women (versus men), associates, younger and early/mid-career doctors, those working longer hours (consistently >46 hours/week), those frequently on-call or who work evenings, holiday, or weekend shifts, those paid on salary, and those in both rural and equine practice.
A paper written in the UK highlighted that veterinarians seek other career choices off the clinic floor after only 7 years in clinics (Limb, 2018).
Why are so many of us flocking to jobs where we indirectly treat patients? Or even worse, why are many veterinarians leaving the profession altogether and joining other industries?
To understand this, let us recognize the top 5 contributors to burnout & low wellbeing among our colleagues (Volk, Schimmack, Strand, Lord, & Colin W. Siren, 2018):
- High student debt (50%)
- Low compensation (45%) compared to other professionals
- Job stress (29%) – including the personal toll the profession takes on a person’s life
- Client interaction (23%)
- Challenging work-life balance (15%)
Sadly, neither Merck study dives into what exactly contributes to veterinarian job stress. When analyzed, many of the on-the-job stressors are rooted at the organizational level requiring organizational solutions – we will explore this concept in future articles.
At this point, I feel it is important to briefly distinguish the difference between “Burnout” and “Compassion Fatigue”. Simply put,
- Burnout is caused by where you work and
- Compassion Fatigue is caused by the work you do.
The take-home message: responsibility for alleviating burnout also lies with the company.
Mandating individuals to practice self-care, mindfulness, yoga, or use vacation time is not a comprehensive solution (Shanafelt & Noseworthy, 2016). Truth is, organizational job stressors are still waiting for us, unmitigated, when we return to the job – and all the mindfulness and yoga in the world cannot fix that. Stress levels quickly skyrocket after walking back through the clinic doors.
It is important for veterinarians to realize that they are not broken, and more often the system is broken. A new and better approach of “caring for the caregiver” needs to be instituted by our industry, however, sweeping, large scale changes take time. An intensely embedded veterinary culture (“that’s the way we do things around here”) exists, and let me tell you, those roots run wide, long, and deep.
So, where do we start??
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Take control of what YOU can control and remember, only YOU are responsible for your own happiness – no job or person can change that.
A tragic mistake in thought are the notions of: “I just want to do my job” and “all I want to do is practice medicine”. I implore you, do not be okay with the above philosophy. Once you believe medicine is your only role, you have given up your seat at the table. Veterinarians need to demand our seat back from those both inside and outside of the industry. I love the quotation from Shirley Chisholm – “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Making the leap from working as an associate to freelance and relief work, starting a mobile practice, or other innovative employment solutions, effectively gives us that edge, that control, that seat at the table. With the demand for clinical veterinarians at an all-time high, it is important to realize you are not powerless, and your actions matter.
Defining your worth
What are YOU worth – the million-dollar question? I am glad to see the tides turning. Veterinary schools are training new graduates to ask for salaries that were unheard of even 5-7 years ago. It is not uncommon for a new graduate to receive an offer of $100K+ base salary plus a bonus system. New grads are not only asking for this level of compensation (along with an array of other benefits), but they are getting it!
Yet the gremlins in our heads are persistent.
Those most prone to believing the thoughts of “we aren’t worth that much” or “I’m not that good or that valuable” are colleagues 7-15+ years out from graduation or internship. The Gen Xers and older Millennials have always gone the route of doing the work asked of them for the compensation offered, no matter how much additional time was spent at home on “off the clock” hours. Associates are often hesitant to rock the boat, question why, or ask if compensation is truly fair.
To challenge those gremlins, try this exercise. Ask yourself these questions.
- How many years have I been in clinical practice?
- What practice types have I worked?
- Am I internship trained?
- What specialty CE courses have I taken and/or certifications do I hold?
- Have I helped a current or former hospital successfully implement a new service or special project?
- What specific veterinary skill sets do I possess? Dentistry, surgery, HVHQSN, telehealth?
- How about specific non-veterinary skill sets.
- Is vet med my 2nd career? What was my first?
- Do I have a business degree, marketing knowledge, IT skills, inventory experience, EQ or communication competences?
- Have I trained and mentored new or recent veterinary graduates?
Dig deep and get creative. Heed Brené Brown’s advice, and tell those gremlins to be silent! So many of us have skill sets which have taken years of clinical experience to develop. Businesses are desperate for experienced clinicians. Ask for what you want – for what you are worth – and do not be surprised when your requests are fulfilled.
Think of your worth as an hourly amount versus an annual sum. Spend some time looking at what other professionals charge hourly for their time (lawyers, editors, website designers, consultants, hairdressers, etc.). Remember, you are a doctor. I GUARANTEE you are worth so much more than you think you are. Flexible compensation options are only one of the many reasons veterinarians are flocking into relief and freelance work.
Thinking “outside the box”
In the words of Dr. Mia Cary and many others, YOU DO YOU!!! What do YOU want out of your veterinary career? If you still love medicine and taking care of patients, why not do it on your own terms?
Be innovative. It is okay to have a kaleidoscope career – spend a workweek (or month) split between clinical practice, mobile practice, telehealth, or consulting, with each of these services provided to a different organization.
What if you can practice clinical medicine AND minimize the elements that cause you your most stress??
Identify what makes you happy, what you want out of relief life. This may mean only performing procedures (surgery and dentistry) and not seeing appointments, thus minimizing the amount of time spent in direct client interaction. Maybe it is the ability to see appointments, but not have to worry about follow up or management of chronic care. Or perhaps this means the ability to go into a practice and do your job as a veterinarian without becoming involved in hospital and staff drama.
But what do I need from an employer?
What benefits are important? What can be provided on your own volition? Do you have a spouse who has health insurance, or can you find health insurance at a reasonable cost in the open market? How important is a 401K that may or may not match versus starting a SEP IRA though your own business? Paid time off – is it better to have paid time off accrued versus working an hourly rate that provides enough compensation so that taking unpaid time off does not have a negative financial impact? Is there a benefit to working the shifts you want when you want to work versus having a mandated, consistent schedule?
You’ve got this!
Now that you have identified your worth and your needs, it is time to chase those dreams. Join me next time to explore the steps for advancing your career on YOUR OWN TERMS!
Limb, M. (.-y. (2018). Limb, M. (2018). Seven-year limit for vets in clinical practice. Veterinary Record. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/vr.k1970t(2018). Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study 2020. Summit, NJ: Intervet, Inc. .
Shanafelt, T. D., & Noseworthy, J. H. (2016). Executive Leadership and Physician Well-being: Nine Organizational Strategies to Promote Engagement and Reduce Burnout. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 129-149.
Vallerand, R. J., L., P. F., Charest, J., & Paquet, Y. (2010). On the Role of Passion for Work in Burnout: A Process Model. Journal of Personality, 78(1), 289-312.
Volk, J. O., Schimmack, U., Strand, E. B., Lord, L. K., & Colin W. Siren, C. W. (2018). Executive Summary of the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Well-being Study. JAVMA, 252(10), 1231-1238.