Burnout: causes and solutions - Veterinary Practice
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Burnout: causes and solutions

KATHERINE DOBBS introduces a new series on ‘burnout’ in practice, looking at the main causes and how it is possible to prevent it, prepare for it or prevail over it during a professional career

MOST of us can identify when we are feeling burnt out and when we express that feeling to others they usually understand what we mean.

We are also pretty good at recognising it in others around us, particularly while at work. While we may feel that burnout is unavoidable and inevitable, if we take a deeper look at burnout we discover that there are ways to cope with and minimise these feelings, perhaps even avoid burnout down the road in our careers.

Let’s first look at a few definitions of burnout, and see how it relates to the work we do.

  • Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest, especially in one’s career. – Patricia Smith
  • Burnout is a result of frustration, powerlessness, and inability to achieve work goals. – Charles R. Figley

These definitions may speak to how you feel, or what you suspect others are feeling. When speaking specifically about animal care work, Dr Robert G. Roop and Dr Charles R. Figley identified the main causes of burnout in the workplace.

We will explore each cause. The more we know, the more we can prevent, prepare for or prevail over burnout in our professional careers.

Burnout in the workplace is a result of:

  1. Conflict between individual values and organisational goals and demands.
  2. An overload of responsibilities.
  3. A feeling of having no control over the quality of services provided.
  4. Awareness of little emotional or financial reward.
  5. Sense of loss of community within work setting.
  6. Inequity or lack of respect at the workplace.
  7. Idealistic people exposed to traumatic material.

Cause number 1

Conflict between individual values and organisational goals and demands can be one of the largest contributing factors of burnout, but it’s also a cause that we can work to prevent from the very beginning of our career and at each subsequent place of employment.

First you have to do some searching, and figure out what are your individual values. These will also develop over time, and exposure to good and not-so-good veterinary medicine.

Author and consultant Jim Wilson, in his book involving veterinary ethics, lists several issues that we should examine to help determine our personal ethics within our role as a veterinary professional. Adding to that list, here are some of Wilson’s ideas plus other issues that might evolve:

  • “Convenience” (or “healthy”) euthanasia. Depending on your personal ethics, the definition of “convenience” may be different from that of the practice owner or assistant veterinarian. This is becoming such a hot topic in our profession that it can hardly be ignored, but how many of us ask about this issue when we interview a prospective employer?

Interview potential employer

That’s right, WE should be interviewing our potential employer. Situations of this nature could involve euthanasia for behaviour issues, for elderly but not ailing pets, the necessity of owners to move or scale down their residence or reduce mouths to feed at home, or unwillingness to provide care for chronic health conditions.

Are there circumstances when you feel that euthanasia is appropriate, and others you do not? This can evoke a powerful emotional reaction when your value’s line is crossed.

  • Quality of surgical care. This topic would cover questions such as: is general anesthaesia given to perform dentals; is aseptic technique used to place intravenous catheters; is a sterile surgery pack used to perform procedures without being reused on multiple patients; and what are the sterilisation techniques?
  • Level of medical care. This topic would cover questions such as: how conservative or aggressive are the veterinary surgeons with diagnostic procedures and tests; what is the recommended vaccination protocol; what are the options for advanced critical or surgical care; are patients hospitalised overnight without supervision, and in what circumstances are patients referred to a 24-hour or overnight facility?
  • Flexibility of financial options. This topic would cover questions such as: what groups are typically given standard discounts such as elderly clients, rescue animals, and service animals; what is the payment policy for clients who cannot afford the recommendations; how are outstanding collections handled; and is there a charitable or non-profit “Angel Fund” in the practice to help pay for patient care?

These are just some of the topics, and some of the questions, that may form the basis of your own personal values within the profession of veterinary medicine. If you’ve never taken the time to think about your values, now’s the time … before you are hired into a practice where you find yourself either compromising your values or leaving within the first month or two when you realise it’s not a good ethical fit for you.

On the other side of this equation is the practice’s organisational goals and demands. The only way you’ll discover what these are is to ASK, preferably before you accept a position!

To uncover the practice’s goals, ask about the business’s mission statement, vision for the future, or practice objectives. If none of these exist, then frame these questions to the interviewer and find out more about where the practice is headed. You want to be sure and catch a ride on a practice that is going in your same direction!

In other words, if you are a progressive-minded technician who wants to see the most up-to-date and revolutionary protocols used, then you’ll want to accept a position where this is also important to the practice owner(s).

As far as organisational demands, this would mean the demands placed on YOU for the position that you are considering. Ask for a job description for the position you are considering. The best managed practices will already incorporate this step into the interview process but, if not, you must take the initiative.

Read the job description over well, perhaps before the “in person” interview or after the interview but BEFORE you accept the position. Take your time with this description, and make sure you can picture yourself doing these tasks on a daily basis.

Note any questions or concerns you have, and explore those before joining the practice’s employee roster.

Also ask about the typical frequency and amount of overtime worked in that position; how many others do the same job at the same time as you and on different shifts (to help determine how much they will depend on you during times of unexpected short-staffing); the weekend schedule and also the holiday schedule for employees and how holidays are distributed among the staff members; the turnover rate (which could indicate that the practice overloads its employees if they turn over people often … however, turnover in the right amount is healthy and provides new energy and ideas); what additional “projects” have been assigned in the past to your type of position – and other questions that you may brainstorm from positions you’ve had in the past that were overwhelming … to help you eliminate that situation again.

A growth process

Finding the right place to work is a growth process. In other words, as you work one place and see what you do NOT like about that employer, you will be more careful accepting the next position without checking out the details.

It’s more of a process of elimination sometimes, because it’s impossible to know all of your values until you have more experience under your belt, and it’s difficult to know what type of employer you want until you see how bad it could be (sad, but true). So do your homework!

Remember, the hiring process is not just the time for them to interview YOU, but also an opportunity for you to interview THEM about the practice to ensure that you are a good fit!

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