Burnout in veterinary nurses



Many vet nurses are subject to burnout as a result of the daily stressors on the job. Failure to address the early warning signs can lead to serious problems such as depression and other issues. Heather Vaile reports

‘Burnout’ is your mind and body’s way of responding to chronic stress. The term was coined by American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger in his 1974 book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. It described the effects of extreme stress and high ideals on people working in helping professions such as healthcare and social work. Today the expression is used far more broadly, and it is thought it can affect people in any job.

Dr Vanessa Rohlf is a former vet nurse who now works as a consultant, therapist and educator with a particular interest in the psychology of human-animal interactions. 

She says that while the term ‘burnout’ is often used interchangeably with ‘compassion fatigue’ in academic literature, there are some differences. Whereas burnout can leave you feeling constantly worn out, prone to illness, cynical, unfocused and de-motivated at work, compassion fatigue “has similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress, like avoidance, feeling emotionally shut down and having intrusive, distressing thoughts, memories and nightmares”.

While Dr Rohlf is not aware of any Australian research documenting the extent of burnout in veterinary nurses, she says, “We do know it is highly prevalent, if the UK is anything to go by. In 2016, they sampled 992 registered veterinary nurses and they found that 92.8 per cent were in the moderate to high-risk category of burnout and 68.1 per cent were in the moderate to high-risk category for secondary trauma.”

The cause

Janet Murray, the current president of the Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia (VNCA), believes that “long hours, prolonged stress, continued exposure to the trauma and pain of animals and low pay are all factors that can contribute to burnout”.

Dr Rohlf echoes this view. “Workplaces where there are high levels of work demands, things like really large case loads and staff working really long hours, for example; when that occurs and you’ve got limited resources, low levels of support from management or you don’t have a lot of training in that area, they’re the kind of things that place both vets and vet nurses at a greater risk of burnout.”

It can go on for months or years and become a serious health and career hazard.

“Some people may leave their job, some people may leave the profession, but others might get help while working through it,” Dr Rohlf says. “Many people do come out the other end, so there’s hope. And when people do come out the other end, they say they feel much stronger. Often, they also feel that they have much more compassion for themselves and other people.”

How to help

In an encouraging sign that the industry is aware of and responding to the various mental health challenges facing vet nurses, Murray mentions that the VNCA has recently launched a wellness hub for its members on their website (under resources). The hub contains useful apps, podcasts, links to various health websites and other practical information. 

Both Dr Rohlf and Janet Murray suggest other veterinary colleagues can provide support to a vet nurse who is at risk of or suffering from burnout by taking the initiative when things are quiet, finding a private place and asking them if they’re okay. Listen but don’t judge and really think about what the vet nurse is trying to tell you.

A cautionary tale

Trish [last name withheld] is a former vet nurse who now works for a veterinary wholesaler in Perth. She worked as a vet nurse in two different practices for about 15 years altogether. 

“I started to feel burnout within the past two years,” she says. “I was feeling tired, grumpy and irritable and I could feel the care factor going.

“I loved everyone I worked with, my bosses were great and the other nurses—we’re still friends now. It didn’t have anything to do with who I was working with; it was just a real loss of care and accountability. I would have a meeting with my boss at least once a month and say, ‘Look, I’m doing payroll, accounting, reception, nursing, cleaning, all these things’.”

“Some people may leave their job, some people may leave the profession, but others might get help while they’re working through it.”—Dr Vanessa Rohlf, consultant and former vet nurse

“Then when I left they were actually really surprised and said, ‘Why didn’t you talk to us about this?’ 

“And I said, ‘I thought I did!’

“I was having meetings with them for at least six months before I finally said ‘I’ve had enough’ but they just didn’t get it. They were really lovely guys and I’m still mates with them today, but they just don’t get the hours that some nurses have to do. And you just get burned out and think, why am I doing this?”

Ten top tips for beating burnout

1. Know the symptoms. Researchers tend to agree that burnout has three main components: exhaustion, inefficacy and cynicism. While we all may feel like this from time to time, burnout usually involves experiencing these feelings over a significant period of time, e.g. a month or more. 

2. Maintain strong social connections and reach out to others for help when you need it. Family, friends, colleagues, peers, even online support groups can be great sources of comfort, coping strategies and creative ideas for taking your mind off work. 

3. Set boundaries and learn to say no. It’s easy to over-extend yourself if you’re a caring and empathetic person—but saying yes to everything and everyone is not good for your wellbeing or sustainable over the long term. 

4. Let go of negative interactions. Try not to dwell on any unpleasant interactions that occur in the workplace. People often say and do things they don’t mean in a crisis. Burnout can magnify feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and hopelessness, making things seem worse than they really are. 

5. Make sure you take regular breaks. This might be just a few minutes between client visits or a few days away for a planned mini-break. If you have a supportive employer, you may even be able to switch to a more flexible work schedule.

6. Practise good self-care, self-acceptance and self-compassion. Eat well, exercise regularly, try meditation or mindfulness, avoid alcohol and drugs and make sure you get enough sleep. 

7. Spend time with the animals you love. Whether it’s your own pet(s), inpatients or the clinic cat, spending time with animals can remind you of why you do this job. And it’s good medicine too! 

8. Consider learning a new professional or personal wellbeing skill. Sometimes burnout can be linked to a sense of a lack of control or a feeling of being taken for granted at work. Enrolling in a short course to keep your skills up to date will re-energise you and boost your self-confidence.

9. Seek professional counselling. If things start to feel overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Ask your GP for advice and/or a referral to see a psychologist. 

10. Start looking for another job or other career opportunities. Sometimes burnout can relate to the emotional (and/or physical) toll of working with a relentlessly demanding person or a really tough job. If this is the case, moving on may be the best thing for you. 

Dr Rohlf offers counselling sessions and tailored group training for vet clinics in the forms of workshops and seminars on compassion-fatigue prevention and management, and on dealing with grief and bereavement. drvanessarohlf.com.au 



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