Burnout in veterinary medicine is an ingrained part of our culture. With 48% of vets experiencing it at some stage in their career, it is clearly prolific and severe.
And it is not a condition to be reckoned with. Though burnout is a relatively new term- it has very real effects. Scientists have found that burnout physically alters the brain, making it less able to regulate emotions effectively. Prolonged occupational stress can also worsen an individual’s memory and attentiveness- causing a gradual decline in work performance over time .
This is crazy- and quite worrying.
But the fundamental problem is that given the infancy of burnout research, there is not an immense amount of data on how to deal with it. In a review of 11,000 papers on the subject, researchers found that medical interventions for burnout were ‘very fragmented’, making it incredibly difficult to create a set of burnout treatment guidelines .
Knowing this, what can professionals do to bounce back from burnout? Is it even possible?
What Works- And What Doesn’t
Before we deep dive into how to recover from burnout, let’s talk a bit about what burnout actually is (and whether you have it).
Burnout is a medically recognized condition coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Though the term was reserved for those in ‘helping professions’ (such as nursing), now, it is used to describe the feeling of depletion or exhaustion after a prolonged period of severe stress in a range of occupations .
Burnout can be tricky to spot, given its similarities to conditions such as depression or compassion fatigue.
However, there are some distinct signs of burnout, including:
– Alienation from work-related activities
– Physical issues (such as headaches, stomach aches, and intestinal problems)
– Physical and mental exhaustion
– Negative feelings towards work
– Lack of creativity
– Poor concentration 
Burnout typically plays out in five stages:
The first stage is the honeymoon phase. During this stage, vets have the energy and ability to take on work challenges. The next stage, the balancing act, is where the cracks begin to show. At this point, your energy begins to drop, and you begin to notice things about your job that you dislike.
After this point, employees enter the chronic symptoms stage. At this point, you are running on an empty tank. Chronic exhaustion, stress, and anxiety begin creeping in, leading to the crisis stage.
If interventions are not made at the crisis stage, enmeshment occurs. Enmeshment is where chronic symptoms have gone on so long that they have become an integral part of life.
Burnout Busting Myths
Because so little is known about burnout recovery, there is plenty of misinformation floating around on the internet.
Though some activities may aid in burnout prevention, their effectiveness is unclear. It appears that beyond a certain point on the road to burnout, these methods alone are only so useful.
Exercise, for example, whilst a fantastic stress reliever and preventative measure has not been shown to effectively alleviate burnout . Whereas improving communication skills, whilst also a fantastic way of reducing work stress, is not an effective way of directly recovering from burnout .
So What Does Help With Burnout Recovery In Veterinary Medicine?
Well, it depends.
There are a few things that you can do to help yourself recover from an episode of burnout- but what works varies from person to person. Many strategies for burnout recovery do not have masses of evidence behind them, making definitive recommendations difficult.
Saying this- there is some promising research out there.
Burnout Recovery Strategies That May Work
Mindfulness is a fantastic tool that professionals can use to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. However, research into the effectiveness of mindfulness as an exclusive burnout treatment is very touch and go.
While some studies have found that mindfulness can significantly reduce feelings of burnout, others have produced small or insignificant results . This makes it hard to definitively recommend mindfulness as a sole treatment for burnout. But, given its other benefits, It is certainly worth exploring.
Similarly, while relaxation techniques are great in conjunction with other burnout treatments, on their own, they are not effective in treating burnout in veterinary professionals. Don’t be too quick to write them off though- they can be great for reducing emotional exhaustion, a contributor to the condition .
If you want to seek professional treatment for burnout, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may not be as effective as other means. Saying this- some studies have seen promising results- so the jury is out on this method .
Practices That Give You The Most Bang For Your Buck
Unsurprisingly, the most effective way of recovery from burnout is working less.
This, unfortunately, is not an option for most people- especially in this profession. A combination of individual and organizational approaches (some of which we highlight in this article) tend to be the most effective methods for preventing burnout. This is because these interventions remove the source of stress itself while simultaneously aiding individuals in building resilience .
Here are some things you can do as a vet in practice, even if you don’t have a say in managerial affairs:
Connect with others- in one study researchers found that giving physicians an hour a week to discuss their experiences in practice significantly eased feelings of burnout. Not only did it provide a source of therapeutic outlet, but it also allowed for physicians to challenge and overcome belief systems holding them back .
Overcome challenges outside of work- feelings of burnout can be exacerbated by feelings of hopelessness. This lack of agency can cause a spiral effect, which can be detrimental. Alongside utilizing good self-care, mastering an activity (i.e, running) can give professionals a sense of accomplishment and control outside of the workplace, easing experiences of burnout .
Work less- if, after reading this article, you feel you might be close to burning out, then you should talk to your manager (or examine your practice policies). Consider taking some holiday or reducing your hours if possible. If not possible, at the very least, outline clear boundaries between work and home.
Therapeutic approaches that examine and reconfigure how you perceive stress may also be helpful. To learn more about this, listen to Dr. Sharon Grossman’s (a Psychologist, Life Coach, and Speaker) Blunt Dissection episode on how you can alter your stress perception.
Prevention Is key
The bottom line is that burnout is a complicated condition. What may work for you may not work for others. Though having a conversation with management about your work practices is likely to be the most effective burnout solution, trying out a selection of these tools may be useful.
Ultimately, prevention is crucial. So equipping yourself and others with the knowledge on how to stay psychologically well at work should be a priority.
Unsure on how to prevent burnout in veterinary medicine? Check out this article on the: 4 Ways To Avoid Burnout As A Vet
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