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When Burnout Gets Personal

Guest Blog Author: Dr. Andraya Cole

Thoughts on Burnout

These days it feels like everyone is talking aboutburnout”. It has almost become this mystical buzzword we all shake our heads at in disapproval and then do nothing about.  I’ve become particularly aware of the superficial nature in which potential employers try to entice me with talk of less burnout. But what does that actually mean?  How can we even obtain less of it? Is it even possible? Or do we eventually throw our hands in the air and just say oh well, this is the nature of the profession, deal with it?

Let’s break this down a bit. Sure, we have a definition for burnout. “Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”.

Now take this definition and apply it & apparently up to two-thirds of the veterinary profession is experiencing it.  Two-thirds! Let that sink in…

It’s important to note that burnout is different for everyone and it can also arise in different spaces of life. As an introvert, I know social burnout well. That feeling of being pushed past a point with simple human interaction.  While also having the thought that I need the me time to recharge or I will explode. Quarantine has actually been kind to me in this way.

As a black woman, I feel burnout with the emotional exhaustion of defending my lived experience time and time again. But professional burnout, whew, this has been a whole new ball game. I graduated from veterinary school in 2019 and if you were to tell me I’d spend my entire adult life looking forward to, training for, and paying for a career that I’d no longer be sure I wanted any part of two years out, I’d scream! At the very least I would certainly think twice about my choices.

In this regard I am not the minority. Some studies show that only 24% of vets under the age of 34 would recommend their choice of profession to others. Ouch!

Things that Contribute to my Burnout:

  • Long shifts, sometimes with double or triple booked appointments
  • Negotiating standard-of-care to fit a client’s budget
  • Managing certain team members
    • This one has become particularly challenging during COVID; constantly reminding staff and clients to keep masks on and sanitize appropriately to feel safe at work
  • Rude clients, demanding clients, know-it-all clients, downright mean clients…you get the gist

What my Burnout Manifests as:

  • Feeling exhausted by the thought of going to work the night before I have a shift even after several days off
  • Making a list of things I need to learn more about that I just continuously push off because the thought of working more is exhausting
  • The grief that surrounds me knowing more veterinarians have taken their own lives
  • Frustration that I am not doing enough  & even has me dragging my feet in daily tasks like writing 


The Day-to-Day

For some colleagues, burnout may look completely different, and it can be hard to recognize and navigate that. I’ve had colleagues cry in my arms simply for having to find the strength to show up that day. Other colleagues lash out in impatience at tasks with simple solutions. And others still shrug their shoulders and make self-deprecating remarks about feeling nothing. As natural empaths, veterinary professionals want to help. We want to solve problems and be a trusted support system. But how do I even begin to carry someone else’s burnout when I am dealing with my own? How do I tell management that the staff is exhausted when there are always patients needing to be seen?

On busy days my mind can quickly shift from focusing on providing patient care to just getting patients seen and gone so I can go home. I don’t even feel it happen sometimes.

I recognize this when I lay my head down at night and think, shoot, I forgot to recommend this or to tell my technician that (this is the backlash I get for being a perfectionist on top of all of it). I toss and turn all night until I wake up and do it all over again the next day.  Now I’m even less energized than before.

This isn’t what I envisioned when I was dreaming of being a vet. It’s not even what I thought of being an adult!  Being constantly tired and reluctant to do basic things that are asked of me as a professional, what is that??  And while this is not something I experience every day, it is a cumulative impact. It has woken me up more often than not, thinking, how did I get here? And it is scary!


Going Deeper

I have been through this cycle a few times in the first two years since being out of veterinary school. Every six months or so I’d wake up and just feel out of it; even on my days off. I couldn’t place my finger on what was bothering me. Until my husband started asking the real questions.

Pretty soon it became clear that I wasn’t happy with my caseload. I was carrying the weight of my coworkers’ concerns on my shoulders, not feeling like I was helping my clients and patients as much as I wanted to, and all the while not feeling like I had a community of support around me.

We moved to this area for the sole purpose of my job, and here I was telling my husband I uprooted our lives and wasn’t happy. I felt like a failure. For a long time, I had chalked it up to new graduate woes. I was lacking confidence that would come in time, or that I just hadn’t yet found the type of caseload that brings me joy. Reality check – I was just plain burnt out.

Watching colleagues in the field for decades carry on each day, I was ashamed that this happened to me so fast.  So I got to work. I began to craft lists of what I wanted out of a job, colleagues, community, life. I rediscovered my passion for the things I have always meant to do and realized they weren’t just dreams, but tangible things I could find. For me, that meant the difficult decision to leave my current practice in search of a new one. I’d be naïve to think a new job would erase that list of things that contribute to burnout. But I am hopeful that if I am coming to work clear-headed and passionate about what I do, that those things will contribute less to the cumulative smack in the face that hits me when times get tough.

I have more questions than answers in all of this, to be honest. But I believe the first step is recognizing burnout and how it affects us as practitioners and as people. For me, I am a work in process & progress.  On the lookout for a job that hopefully brings me joy in the cases I see and more time to spend doing all the other things I love, with the people I love.

For you, it may be learning to say no to an extra appointment or learning to say yes to a hobby you lost along the way. Whatever it is, it is imperative to ask ourselves how burnout contributes to who we are in this world. And when we see it in others, we need to take the time to ask how we can help be part of the solution. Even just at that moment to listen.

If you want to learn more information and get resources on handling burnout, a good place to start is the AVMA and Not One More Vet. It is key to point out that the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to burnout in ways we may not yet understand.   Please continue to be proactive and check in with yourselves, and your teams in this difficult time.


About the Author:

Dr. Andraya Cole is a wife, a cat owner, a soon-to-be mother, and a veterinarian who works in Pennsylvania as a mixed animal vet. She is a graduate of Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a candidate of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Follow along as she posts a series of blogs on the mental health issues veterinarians and veterinary teams face and some tools to recognize and combat them.

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