Helping Veterinarians Flourish
By Judson Vasconcelos, DVM, PhD – Merck Animal Health Consumer & Veterinary Affairs Lead
Do we know how the Veterinary profession is doing so that we can use the best resources available to help veterinarians who are struggling? While we know that most veterinarians are doing well, research tells us a significant portion of the profession is struggling with poor wellbeing and mental health issues. During these stressful times of Covid 19, wellbeing more important than ever. As a company that prioritizes and works with the veterinary profession, we decided to take a deeper look into wellbeing and conducted the first Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study with results published in 2018. The results of this study provided us with a better understanding of the challenges veterinarians face and helped us develop resources to help them. As a Veterinarian, I’m proud of Merck Animal Health’s commitment to the veterinary profession and to be a co-author on this important study looking at the wellbeing of veterinarians.In an effort to build upon this study and our efforts, we conducted a second study in 2019 through a collaborative effort between Merck Animal Health, Brakke Consulting, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Our intent was to continue to monitor wellbeing and mental health of US veterinarians and to benchmark key findings against US physicians and the general population where appropriate in an effort to examine several important issues in depth. These issues included burnout, substance use disorder, suicide ideation and attempts, job satisfaction and cyberbullying among others. We also wanted to evaluate potential solutions to address the identified challenges.To conduct the study, 20,000 surveys were distributed to an AVMA database of veterinarians. We received 2,871 usable, completed responses (14.5%). While we discovered that overall veterinarian wellbeing was on average unchanged from our first study conducted in 2017, data also revealed there’s significant work to do related to treatment.
2020 Study Highlights
- While veterinarians work on average fewer hours per week than US physicians, veterinarians experienced higher rates of burnout.
- Veterinarian use of alcohol is similar to the general population, while cannabis use is lower.
- Serious psychological distress was more prevalent among female veterinarians
- Veterinarians are much more likely to think about suicide than non-veterinarians, and 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-veterinarians.
- Female veterinarians have higher rates of suicide ideation than their male counterparts, however, male veterinarians are more likely to attempt suicide.
- Similar to what was found in our 2017 study, 52% of veterinarians would not recommend the profession to a friend or family member with major concerns cited as financial issues and the high cost of becoming a veterinarian combined with low salaries once they enter the field.
Our data shows that most veterinarians are mentally healthy and have high levels of wellbeing. These veterinarians take pride in their work and feel it contributes to the common good. Unfortunately, some veterinarians, especially younger veterinarians, who are more likely to be female, are struggling. Many of these veterinarians are not getting the help they need or taking advantage of the resources made available by veterinary organizations such as AVMA.Veterinary medicine is a stressful profession, and stress is considered the most critical issue facing the profession by 92% of respondents. Additional factors such as financial stress in the form of high student debt and low incomes along with poor work-life balance are major contributors.Overall, the study shows that attitudes toward mental health are improving, but we still have work to do as it relates to treatment. While there is a positive change in caring about those with mental illness, there is still a large treatment gap and there are many things that both individuals and veterinary organizations can do to address these issues facing the profession.
Recommendations to Address Veterinarian Wellbeing
- Every practice should discuss wellbeing, stress and mental health frequently and encourage practitioners to seek help if needed. While there is still stigma attached, it can be reduced if the topic is addressed in meetings and gatherings of veterinarians.
- Inviting local mental health professionals to speak at team meetings will also make local resources more familiar to team members.
- Give associate veterinarians and other employees permission to schedule meetings with counselors when needed.
- In addition, there are tele-behavioral health resources that veterinarians can access on their own time. Several can be found at E-counseling.com.
- If you suspect someone may be a danger to themselves or others, dial 9-1-1.
- Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, dial 1-800-273 TALK (8255).
- Type “mobile crisis” into your computer search engine for assistance with a mental health crisis in virtually every community.
- Our study indicated that veterinarians with a healthy method for dealing with stress were less likely to experience serious psychological distress and more likely to have a higher level of wellbeing.
- Techniques for dealing with stress can be found at vetwellbeing.com.
- The value of a good balance between work and healthy, non-work activities was evident in the study results.
- Good work-life balance contributes to higher wellbeing, less serious psychological distress, less burnout, and higher job satisfaction.
- Spending time with family and friends was among the non-work activities with the greatest positive effect. Other activities tested with positive results included exercising, having a hobby and traveling and reading for pleasure.
- Veterinarians who worked with a financial planner were one-third as likely to experience psychological distress and had significantly higher levels of wellbeing.
- For students with debt, the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) Foundation Student Debt Center provides many resources.
- Fee-based financial planners charge only for their professional services and are not affiliated with firms whose goal is to sell investment vehicles or other services. Fee-based financial planners can be found through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers. For those that cannot afford a financial adviser, there are pro bono resources available at: NAPFA Foundation, Financial Planning Association, and National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
- Spending more time on social media is negatively associated with mental health and wellbeing.
- Social media isn’t socializing – it’s spending time alone with your computer.
- The more time on social media, the greater exposure to cyberbullying.
The Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study was conducted through a collaborative effort between Merck Animal Health, Brakke Consulting, and the AVMA. The results of our second study were released earlier this year at the Veterinary Meeting and Expo (VMX), the world’s leading veterinary conference, in Orlando, FL, and will be published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in June of 2020. I’ve had the pleasure to present the study at both VMX and the Western Veterinary Conference (WVC) alongside my colleagues Dr. Christine Royal, Merck Animal Health, and John Volk, Brakke Consulting.