Burnout and Work-Life Balance Study in the Veterinary Profession 2021
Veterinary Integration Solutions presents findings from the second-year survey, Burnout Study in the Veterinary Profession 2021. Led by Dr. Ivan Zak, the continuing research aims to assess the dynamic in burnout rates across demographics and work settings in the USA, examine factors influencing employee satisfaction, and ultimately help veterinary businesses improve the well-being of their teams.
Last year, Dr. Ivan Zak defended his MBA thesis, “Implementation of Lean Thinking in Healthcare Organizations to Improve the Employee Experience.” In his dissertation, Dr. Zak suggested that lean thinking principles proposed by John Toussaint for human healthcare can be an effective way to prevent burnout among veterinary professionals. Dr. Zak and his team surveyed veterinary professionals to determine the level of burnout in the industry and develop a solution to the problem (2020 survey results).
The 2021 survey used the same methodology from the previous year, allowing for data comparison, with an additional set of questions to dive deeper into the factors that potentially trigger burnout, such as low work-life balance, overwhelming caseload, lack of professional goals, and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) issues.
The research was held in partnership with 🌌 Galaxy Vets, a new veterinary healthcare system co-owned by its employees. With a mission to bring veterinary medicine back to veterinarians, Galaxy Vets has burnout prevention as a strategic priority.
Key findings summary
- The burnout rate increased in all groups over the past year.
- Younger veterinary professionals remain the most burned-out group.
- Veterinary technicians revealed the highest burnout level among all roles.
- Participants who identified as gender-variant/non-conforming reported the highest level of burnout, followed by female respondents.
- There is a direct correlation between caseload and burnout rate.
- Those who had professional goals reported significantly less burnout and felt happier and more valued than those who did not.
- Work-life balance is a challenge for all veterinary professionals, especially for women.
- Veterinary professionals want their employers to take action.
Burnout Rate Increase
The burnout rate increased in all groups over the past year
The comparative analysis found a statistically significant increase in burnout levels between 2020 and 2021.
Evidently, the pandemic stress and restrictions, amplified by the increase in pet ownership and shortage in the veterinary workforce, took their toll on the mental well-being of people in the profession.
Survey participants reported higher levels of work exhaustion: distress, lack of enthusiasm, signs of physical and emotional depletion, and feeling a sense of dread when thinking about work they had to do.
On the interpersonal disengagement scale, respondents showed feeling less empathetic and less connected with their patients and colleagues, and less sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others. The only item that did not aggravate compared to the previous year was “interest in talking with patients(clients)”— the mean score actually improved, suggesting that the desire for personal interaction became stronger during the pandemic.
Professional fulfillment also declined; comparative analysis revealed that veterinary professionals were feeling even less happy, worthy, and satisfied at work, as compared to the previous year.
Burnout and Age
Younger veterinary professionals remain at the highest risk of burnout
The study revealed that veterinary professionals under 30 years of age are more prone to burnout, which is aligned with last year’s findings. The burnout rate in older age groups is still high but the trend declines with increasing age to the point when respondents over 61 reported a dramatically lower burnout rate than other groups.
Several potential explanations could be growing educational debt, as well as the mismatch in academic and private practice environments that may be contributing to the lack of confidence, as well as complications from pandemic restrictions.
Burnout and Role
Veterinary technicians reported the highest burnout level among all roles
The survey collected a sample representing as many staff positions as possible: veterinarians, veterinary technicians/nurses, veterinary assistants, practice managers, receptionists, and customer service representatives. Similar to the previous year, the most significant level of burnout was found among veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants, followed by practice managers and veterinarians.
This evidence is consistent with other studies that found veterinary technicians have a comparatively higher burnout rate and lower job satisfaction. Some of the commonly cited reasons were low pay, underutilization of incorrect usage of skills, lack of autonomy, and insufficient emotional reward.
These factors can spiral into the neglect burnout subtype, where there is a feeling of hopelessness due to the lack of control over one’s work and a perceived absence of acknowledgment for the effort invested.
Burnout and Gender
Participants who identified as gender-variant/non-conforming reported the highest level of burnout, followed by female respondents
Analysis revealed a significant effect of gender on burnout. Participants who identified as gender-variant/non-conforming, although representing only 1% of all respondents, reported the highest level of burnout. This finding suggests that further research is needed to learn how diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace influence burnout.
The largest number of respondents (92.9%) identified as female. This group reported a significantly higher burnout rate compared to participants who identified as male.
Burnout and Caseload
There is a direct correlation between caseload and burnout rate
Participants were asked about the number of patients they see every day and this data was compared to their burnout rate. The most common number of appointments was 11-20 per day (34.6% of respondents) and 21-30 per day (25.8% of respondents); every tenth respondent attended to over 50 patients daily. The analysis found that as the caseload increased, so did one’s burnout, signaling that work overload is one of the burnout contributors.
This is a point for further exploration but the burnout rate plateauing once the caseload surpasses 21 patients per day suggests that anything above this number is overwhelming.
Burnout and Goal-setting
Those who had professional goals reported significantly less burnout and felt happier and more valued than those who did not
Among other factors, the study sought to determine whether goal-setting has a connection with burnout rate. The hypothesis for this was that veterinary professionals might be at higher risk of under-challenge burnout subtype because of their high-achieving nature. Monotony, boredom, underutilization of skills, and lack of learning opportunities are some of the common contributors to this type of burnout.
Goal-setting can be an effective tool for protecting the mental well-being of veterinary professionals and employee retention.
The survey showed that veterinary practitioners who have professional goals are less likely to feel burned out. Compared to their peers who don’t set and record goals annually, they report feeling more happy and valued. This finding suggests that goal-setting can be an effective tool for protecting the mental well-being of veterinary professionals and employee retention.
Work-life Balance and Burnout
Work-life balance is a challenge for all veterinary professionals, especially for women
A part of the study was dedicated to work-life balance as veterinary professionals cite this aspect as the top reason for considering leaving the field. The goal was to measure work-life balance across demographics, draw a correlation between burnout rate and job satisfaction, as well as identify actions that could be taken by employers to develop more satisfying workplaces for the veterinary teams.
The study revealed a positive correlation between professional fulfillment and work-life balance and a negative correlation between work-life balance and burnout. In other words, the lower one’s work-life balance is, the higher the burnout and vice-versa.
There is a direct correlation between work-life balance and burnout.
Women reported a significantly lower work-life balance than men. All age groups were found to have similarly low work-life balance, except veterinary professionals over 61 years old. The analysis did not reveal any significant difference in work-life balance with a breakdown of roles and specializations. Also, the mean score on the work-life balance scale reduced as the number of patients seen per day increased, which is evidence that caseload has a significant impact on the work-life balance.
Takeaways for Employers
Veterinary professionals want their employers to take action
Respondents who indicated that their employer has a clear burnout prevention strategy revealed a significantly lower burnout rate than the rest. Of respondents, 86.6% reported that their employer doesn’t have a clearly defined burnout prevention program. This finding suggests that if employers took a proactive and structured approach towards protecting their employees’ mental well-being, they would have fewer burned-out teams.
Having a burnout prevention strategy matters.
The majority of participants (65.7%) indicated that they would like for management to help them achieve better work-life balance. Using a common assumption that control over boundaries can have a direct impact on a successful work-life balance, participants were asked what kind of actions they would like their employer to take in order to help them set better boundaries. Most respondents (38% ) agreed that it’s hiring more staff. Other responses included mandatory days off and vacation days, reducing caseload, limiting work hours to avoid working too many hours, and making sure there are breaks during the day. This evidence is consistent with the previous discovery that there is a direct correlation between the number of patients and burnout.
Research Dataset, 2021
The survey was based on mixed methodologies. A Brief Instrument to Assess Both Burnout and Professional Fulfillment in Physicians (PFI) was used to measure the burnout rate and job satisfaction, and the methodology of “Psychometric Assessment of Fisher’s Instrument Designed to Measure Work-Life Balance,” proposed by Hayman, was used to assess the work-life balance situation in the veterinary profession.
A separate set of questions was included to test the hypothesis of the VIS methodology for burnout prevention in veterinary organizations. Study data were obtained by a questionnaire. Participants answered anonymously on the VIS website. It received 1,623 responses, making the sample size large enough for statistical validation.