Veterinarians are overextended today in an already high-intensity profession. Amidst the pandemic, worker shortages at veterinary clinics have collided with a surge in new pet adoptions to create a double whammy of overwhelm. The result: packed schedules, high stress, and exhaustion.
This toll has been felt at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) teaching hospital and across the state and nation — amplified by the pandemic’s already wide-ranging mental health impacts.
“The pandemic brought to the forefront an issue that has been there all along, but has lacked appropriate attention: The considerable, intense emotional labor of this job,” says Michele Gaspar DVM’94, a board-certified feline veterinarian and licensed professional counselor. “It’s fair to say that few have thrived and many colleagues have been pushed to their limits. Certainly, for healthcare practitioners, whether in veterinary or human medicine, the pace was especially grueling.”
“Coming out of the pandemic, now more than ever we are being intentional and deliberate about addressing wellbeing as critical. We are doing careful work to determine the best way to proceed meaningfully.”
Wellbeing in veterinary medicine has been a concern and priority over the past several years for the SVM and profession more broadly. But the need to increase these efforts is apparent.
“Coming out of the pandemic, now more than ever we are being intentional and deliberate about addressing wellbeing as critical,” says School of Veterinary Medicine Dean Mark Markel. “We are doing careful work to determine the best way to proceed meaningfully.”
The school has convened a wellbeing task force to assess current efforts, identify gaps and opportunities, and direct change. School representatives from hospital, curriculum, research, and human resources perspectives will hold listening sessions with students and employees over the next few months.
The group is approaching this work through a wide lens that encompasses career, financial, physical, mental, social, individual, and community wellbeing for all members of the school. Their efforts build on the school’s existing student wellness and mental health supports, including individual sessions with three counselors in the Personal and Wellness Support Services office.
“This is beyond an individual person having a good, healthy life. It is also about the intersection between that person and the bigger picture in which we all live, learn, and work,” says Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs and task force chair Lynn Maki.
Individual and Institutional
The task force is conducting their work in collaboration with Makenzie Peterson, who joined the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges in spring 2020 as the organization’s first director for wellbeing. Peterson works collaboratively with veterinary medical schools and colleges across the globe to develop and implement programs that promote wellbeing.
She advocates for a preventative, community-based approach that examines the environments, systems, and policies that may be unintentionally causing distress in the “rigorously longstanding stressful environments” of veterinary medicine. She seeks to integrate evidence-based wellbeing efforts into institutional culture with resources to effect personal change.
“We must understand the ‘why.’ I see a greater openness to discussing these challenges and that makes for a healthier profession. We’re at a point where things aren’t being swept under the rug.”
Similar efforts are underway through the American Veterinary Medical Association and other organizations. The scope of this work, including at the School of Veterinary Medicine, encompasses everything from limiting financial distress and providing financial counseling resources to help individuals navigate debt load, loan repayment options, and financial management to incorporating accommodations and inclusion related to mental health and learning disabilities, and moving toward a competency-based curriculum that integrates wellbeing principles and holistic assessment, as just a few examples.
Gaspar says this shift in awareness has brought about “really necessary conversations.” She’s gratified by the desire to dig deeper past interventions aimed at symptoms and also treat the root of underlying causes. To move the needle, she says, “We must understand the ‘why.’ I see a greater openness to discussing these challenges and that makes for a healthier profession. We’re at a point where things aren’t being swept under the rug.”
In March, the UW School of Veterinary Medicine tragically lost a member of the Emergency and Critical Care faculty, Joshua Smith, to suicide. Smith’s death reiterated to the school and larger veterinary medical community the importance of promoting mental health, wellbeing, and preventive approaches.
“As in many health professions, death by suicide is something that can happen in our communities,” says Peterson. “There are risk factors, but we also know there are protective factors, or things that help people.” (Multiple risk factors and protective factors interact dynamically over time to affect a person’s risk for suicide. Mental health professionals can support communities in learning how to notice warning signs and identifying appropriate supports. The best way to prevent suicide is through early detection, diagnosis, and vigorous treatment of depression and other mental health conditions.)
Both Gaspar and Peterson coordinate across the health professions to develop collaborative approaches to common challenges and stressors. Through her private psychotherapy practice, Gaspar sees a mix of physicians, veterinarians, and other practitioners, helping them navigate professional challenges.
One often-universal concern for Gaspar’s clients is perfectionism and corresponding feelings of shame. But while this is a common thread, she has seen a distinction in the human medical field. As part of her counseling training, Gaspar worked at two human hospitals in Chicago, where she says people in power were not afraid to share their histories with self-doubt and mistakes. “There was an overriding understanding that they are not expected to know it all, that they are human, and that mistakes are made. That triad reduces the shame.”
Better modeling of healthy self-expectations and imperfection is just one example of “what the next generation entering the veterinary profession needs to hear,” she says. “Shame is a huge component of much of the suffering I see in veterinary colleagues. We are compassionate to others, but often less so with ourselves.” Ultimately, it comes down to “trying to do the best for our patients, as time and resources allow, and also trying to do the best for ourselves.”
“The more we talk about wanting people to bring their authentic selves to work and telling people they belong in our community, we need to put our policies where our mouth is. I’m hopeful. There are many colleges of veterinary medicine and many clinics and practices saying, yes, there’s a professional culture evolution that needs to happen.”
Peterson, too, would like to shift perceptions of what a “good veterinarian” is or isn’t, and move past ingrained beliefs or stigmas.
“Unfortunately, I think the profession has historically viewed good veterinarians as people who never ask for help, never complain, and who take what they’re given and smile about it. When really a good veterinarian advocates for others, sets boundaries, and is professionally compassionate,” she says. “I think most veterinarians want that and are that, but they’re not being provided the space and ability to be their best selves.”
Peterson finds hope in leadership embracing change.
“The more we talk about wanting people to bring their authentic selves to work and telling people they belong in our community, we need to put our policies where our mouth is,” she says. “I’m hopeful. There are many colleges of veterinary medicine and many clinics and practices saying, yes, there’s a professional culture evolution that needs to happen.”