By: Dr. Melissa Cheeks
“Do you have any plans for the weekend?” I asked my client on a Friday afternoon. She rolled her eyes while grumpily replying, “Ugh, yeah- I have to work tomorrow.”
I chirped back, “Oh, me too.”
Her response was one I’ll never forget:
“Yeah, but your job is SO fun. You just get to work with animals- I have to deal with people.”
I was accustomed to putting on my veterinary poker face, so I smirked internally as I gently reminded her that each of my patients comes with a person attached to the leash. Despite my honest reply, she was not convinced that my job could be anything other than puppies and rainbows.
The general public is not aware of the demands of veterinary work. Meanwhile, we hear reports of colleagues battling depression and fighting burnout, being overworked and saddled with crippling student debt. Through my work in student ministry, I’ve heard plenty of veterinarians say that, given the choice and a time machine, they’d make a different career decision.
Our profession is at a crossroads, and it seems that every organization is scrambling to figure out how to save the veterinarians. I’ve received email invitations and flyers to wellness retreats, stress-busting workouts, and webinars on veterinary mental health. These sessions are well-attended by people just looking for an answer. How can we feel normal again? The answer begins with identifying the problem.
What are the sources of poor wellness in veterinary medicine? According to the University of Tennessee’s Veterinary Social Work helpline (which reviewed multiple studies), the answers include: giving bad news, managing adverse events, interacting with difficult clients, working effectively in teams, balancing work/home life, financial issues, and handling ethical dilemmas.
We often hear the phrase “compassion fatigue” associated with these veterinary stressors, but that has always puzzled me. Veterinary professionals are some of the most empathetic and compassionate people I know- right there alongside labor & delivery nurses (who might be angels on earth). How can naturally compassionate people get tired of being who they are?
I read an article recently in DVM360 that described compassion fatigue as a myth. The author says, “I believe what we really struggle with in our profession is not so much compassion fatigue as ethical fatigue.” We so often know the right decision to treat our patients, but are restricted by external factors such as finances and availability of diagnostic testing. In other words, our profession is ripe with “moral stress”.
All of this is exhausting to think about. How on earth can we overcome it? Let’s commit to keeping our feet on the ground and our eyes turned heavenward. All of us are made in God’s image, and as such, we can reflect him through our workplace ministry. Every clinic we are part of should be an organization that supports ethical decision-making. That takes intentionality on not only the big decisions, but also the small ones.
Additionally, one study showed that workplace social supports are the most important factor in influencing job stress in veterinary nursing work. Do the technicians in your practice have a network of support, or are they isolated? Is your team truly a team?
Ultimately, to release the stranglehold of moral stress on our profession, we need to be intentional in self-care as well as in our interpersonal relationships. As cliché as they sound, healthy eating, exercise, and proper sleep are basic building blocks to fighting stress.
Beyond that, the Veterinary Social Work office has a few other ideas (verses added by me):
- Practice gratitude: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;give thanks to him and praise his name.” Ps. 100:4
- Participate in community: “Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” 1 Cor 12:14
- Recognize (and use) the personal strengths of your team members: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” 1 Cor 12:27
- Strengthen your commitment to personal values: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39
- Invest time in the lives of others “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28
When you need help, ask for it.
Veterinary professionals are skilled at helping others, but are often afraid to ask for that same help themselves. I recently discovered the anxiety I had after giving birth was not a healthy “new mom” level of anxiety. It was mentally exhausting. Only when I heard a friend describe her struggle with anxiety was I able to realize that my level was the same as hers. If she had not been candid with me, I may never have pursued the help I needed.
A trained psychologist gave me practical tips, homework if you will, to assist me in overcoming my daily anxiety. She must know how veterinarians are wired- I thrived on homework. It was invaluable to have outside perspective on my internal battle. What a joy it is to look back and thank the Lord for the steps He took in bringing me to a healthier place.
Whatever plagues our profession, we are in this together. You are never alone in your struggle- the Lord is with you. The CVM community prays alongside you and encourages you to remember that we are not the authors of wisdom- and that our burden of moral stress can be placed on the one that took our place on the cross. Jesus seeks to make our burden light. What can you give to him that you’ve been holding too tightly?
Veterinary Social Work Helpline: 865-755-8839 (M-F 10am-5pm)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255