A survey has found that 63.4 per cent of Australian veterinarians experience depression, anxiety, stress or burnout, compared with 35.7 per cent in the general population.
The survey sponsored by Bayer Animal Health, Norbrook, Apex Laboratories and Boehringer Ingleheim, was published in the Australian Veterinary Journal. It is the first Australian study to confirm anecdotal reports of high levels of workplace stress.
Lead author Peter Hatch, a veterinarian and counsellor, said contributing factors include client expectations, disappointing clinical outcomes, long hours, on-call duties and professional and social isolation.
“When I first graduated I thought veterinarians would all talk and have a joke with one another, but practices tend to isolate themselves from others,” he said. “Vets tend to say g’day to each other but that’s as far as it often goes – there is an incredible lack of support and community.”Hatch worked in mixed practice for over twenty years before training in counselling. He is completing his PhD on workplace stress, mental health and burnout in veterinarians through Adelaide University under the supervision of Helen Winefield. They surveyed all registered veterinarians in Australia (6991, with over 2020 replies).
A contributing factor to high stress levels is failure to develop coping and communication skills through the university years, Hatch said.
“If coping skills were taught properly at university, we wouldn’t have so much of a problem.”
He acknowledges that university curricula have improved, with most incorporating communication and stress management skills in professional practice subjects, but says that more can be done to equip budding veterinarians for the years ahead. He says more effort is required to address the high suicide rate in the profession, and to identify and address mental health challenges.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There are huge problems below the surface and we need to find out what they are.”
Hatch and colleagues are interested in the expectations of aspiring veterinarians – and whether these are met after graduation.
“We’re seeking [whether] expectations of vets are real and whether they are being met. Failure to meet expectations may be why vets are leaving the profession, and [developing] depression and psychological distress.”
Another issue is a relative lack of positive feedback. Often the best work of veterinarians is not acknowledged – because it is not seen by the client
“When you are working by yourself, no one is there to say you have done a good job. When I was in practice I didn’t enjoy surgery until I learned to challenge myself to do everything better next time. When I’d done better I could affirm myself. A lot of people have not developed the skill of honest self criticism or self affirmation.”
According to Hatch, surveys contribute to a growing awareness of mental health challenges faced by the profession.
“Once we normalise the problem, people can accept that they are not the only one and take steps to deal with it.”
He argues that it is imperative for employers to be aware of occupational stress, as new workplace legislation such as the model Safe Work Act (safeworkaustralia.gov.au) obliges employers to identify and address risk factors.
“I hear of harassment and bullying in practices. A number of veterinarians – graduated less than ten years – have no autonomy in making decisions about cases. There need to be changes in practice management to avoid these problems.”
For veterinarians suffering from mental health issues, Hatch recommends seeking professional help – with a caveat.
“If you see a counsellor, find out what formal qualifications they have and check that these are recognised by the Australian Counselling Association. There is no legal requirement for counsellors to have formal qualification.”
Hatch has developed mental health and cognitive behaviour skills seminar/workshops for veterinarians and is in the process of seeking Government funding to run these programs.
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Hatch PH, Winefield HR, Christie BA and Lievaart JJ (2011) Workplace stress, mental health, and burnout of veterinarians in Australia. Australian Veterinary Journal 89(11):460-468.