When I started working as a veterinary nurse in 2008, the hours were not great. In fact, they were horrible. I was working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday overnights, 12 to 13 hours at a time, at a very busy ER private practice. Those hours were rough, even for a 20-year-old. The pay was enough for me to get by, but I always jumped at the chance to get overtime pay. A few months in, I decided to get a second job, working daylight hours at a general practice. I would come home from work, sleep for 2 to 3 hours, and then get up and go to the day practice. I was busy, but I loved what I was doing.
Fast forward 10 years, and I am still working as a veterinary nurse, but now in a medical oncology department. I had gone as far as a veterinary nurse can without further schooling, obtaining my VTS in oncology in 2014. I was always the type of worker who gave it my all. I was in before anyone else in the department, and I was usually the last to leave.
In August 2018, I quit my job for a cross-country move and took a month off before joining a new hospital. In that month off, something happened. I realized how detached I had become at my previous job. I had lost sympathy for the animals and empathy for the owners. In fact, I remember one day at my previous job, a coworker was trying to explain that some clients in the lobby were very late for their consult, but still really wanted to be seen. She tried to pull on my heartstrings (as we all do in veterinary medicine) by saying, “They are upset; their cat has cancer!”
My response has stuck with me for years. “They all have cancer!” I shouted.
I should have realized at that time what I had become—a robot. A robot who was very good at her job, but who was missing the warm “fuzzies” that she used to get when she started as a veterinary nurse. Now, at my new job, I find myself being much more compassionate, patient, and even-keeled when dealing with patients and clients. I have found my old self again, the person who got into a veterinary nursing career to help animals and people. The one who has a drive to learn and improve every day. I now know what burnout is like for me. I am not alone.
According to an article published in the Annual Review of Psychology, “Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” Veterinary professionals (doctors, nurses, and administrative staff) are exposed to raw emotions day in and day out. On top of witnessing the suffering of patients and the grief of clients, we have other stressors in our profession that contribute to burnout. A demographic study, conducted by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) in 2016, confirmed that the number 1 reason why veterinary nurses leave the field is insufficient pay. This is followed by “lack of respect from the employer (20%), burnout (14%), lack of benefits, childcare difficulties, lack of respect for the profession and compassion fatigue.”
What can we do as members of this profession to decrease the incidence of burnout experienced by licensed veterinary nurses? I think it starts with employers. The NAVTA study showed that the majority of responders (44%) earn a salary of $15 to $20 per hour.2 Even the best-paid veterinary nurses in this study ($20/hr) are only bringing home about $28,000 annually (40 hours/week, 50 weeks, 30% taxes). To put that number into perspective for you, the national poverty level, for a family of four, is $25,000.3
Symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person and can occur throughout multiple stages of a veterinary nurse’s career, making it difficult to identify.
The first step for employers is to respect and recognize the value of their licensed veterinary nurses and to pay them accordingly. In addition, employers can help by taking care of their employees’ well-being. Veterinary nurses should be encouraged to use their earned vacation time, and should receive regular lunch breaks at appropriate times. And while there are many veterinary nurses who will jump at the chance for overtime hours, employers should limit the amount of overtime hours, so that employees are ensured of maintaining a work-life balance.
Symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person and can occur throughout multiple stages of a veterinary nurse’s career, making it difficult to identify. Those who suffer from burnout may experience trouble sleeping, retraction from interaction with loved ones, anger (at work and outside of work), and weight gain. They may also find their work to be frustrating and develop negative attitudes toward the workplace and coworkers. They may develop new or worsening compulsive behaviors, which may include both healthy and unhealthy practices (exercising, dieting, smoking, and alcoholic beverage consumption). Losing patience with our clients and/or patients is one of the red flags of burnout.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Group Health and Life Insurance Trust compared airline preflight safety briefings to burnout in veterinary medicine; in order to help others, we must first help ourselves. Burnout prevention does not only fall on the shoulders of employers. We need to look out for ourselves and our colleagues.
KEEP BURNOUT AT BAY
The AVMA article recommends taking care of yourself as the number 1 thing to avoid burnout. Exercising, eating right, and making yourself a priority are key steps to take. Enjoying your time off and spending it with friends and loved ones will help you reset.
Along with fun and play, people in caregiving jobs also need a relaxation technique. Relaxation techniques don’t have to be the same for everyone. Some individuals might find reading works for them, whereas others enjoy yoga, or a day at the spa.
Try to be positive and encouraging in the workplace, and not negative and demoralizing. The power of positive thinking, along with the ability to perceive and celebrate positive outcomes, are highly correlated with lower levels of compassion fatigue and higher levels of satisfaction.
The last recommendation for combating burnout is: do not be ashamed to talk about it. Hospital managers and supervisors are busy people; they may not pick up on the signs you are exhibiting. Talk to them about an action plan to get you back to feeling the warm fuzzies again, and less like a robot.
RVT, VTS (Oncology) | VCA Veterinary Referral Associates | Gaithersburg, Maryland