Vets’ wellbeing highlighted

Two studies published in 2022 highlighted the prevalence of occupational burnout in veterinary care providers, and the importance of seeking professional help to better manage the three common sources of stress that both studies identified. One of these involved mental health-related conditions associated with the heavy caseloads vets are increasingly expected to handle.

It was this link between high caseloads and a rise in mental health issues that prompted one Tasmanian vet to warn of the potentially serious consequences that could result should a proposal announced by the Veterinary Board of Tasmania towards the end of last year be adopted. The proposal seeks to amend the draft standard relating to the state’s after-hours animal care services, and states:

“Where there is no option for co-operative arrangements between practices, the veterinary practitioner is expected to exercise their judgement regarding the wellbeing for themselves and their employees and not put themselves or their employees at risk.”

Although the period for public comment ended before Christmas, and a final decision has yet to be announced, according to Launceston vet David Allen, approving the change risks shifting the burden of after-hours care onto those practices that continue to provide the service, and will also risk increased stress levels for vets dealing with already large caseloads.

“A lot of vets already are saying they don’t want to do after-hours. If the vets had a choice, they wouldn’t be on call. We get that the Board is saying people shouldn’t be on call for their mental health, but we don’t think just saying ‘don’t be on call’ is the answer, because we’ll continue to be on call until it all comes crashing down,” he said.

The issue of mental health was a particular focus of the study published towards the end of last year in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science. It found that moderate levels of both the perceived stigma around mental health, and barriers to seeking help, featured in the responses of the 408 veterinary professionals who completed an online survey between June and December 2021. With early career veterinary professionals identified as being among the more vulnerable, the study concluded that mental health needed to be, ‘more centrally incorporated into the veterinary curriculum and professional development’.

The study also found that the emergence of COVID-19 had resulted in longer working days and greater caseloads given the ‘unprecedented’ levels of pet ownership reached during the height of the pandemic.

“These practical barriers may be especially relevant to professionals working in rural and remote communities serving livestock and the agricultural sector. There is significantly less psychological support and information available to populations living in rural and regional areas of Australia compared to metropolitan areas,” it stated.

Currently Hobart is the only Tasmanian jurisdiction able to offer a dedicated after-hours emergency service. Elsewhere in the state on-call options tend to be a shared responsibility between vet clinics to help share the load and lessen the burden. Dr Allen believes the provision of after-hours care should be mandatory, and a system requiring clinics to share on call duties be established. He said the alternative risks vets being placed in the difficult position of either turning away patients from clinics that no longer offer an after-hours service or making the two-hour journey to Hobart to access the dedicated after-hours practice.

“It’s very hard for us to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not our problem’, so there’s a massive amount of stress involved. If we’re doing calls for other vets who no longer do on-calls, the mental stress on vets will be such we may not be able to field a team some nights. If the patient’s only option is to drive two or more hours to Hobart, then the concern is that the condition of some of those animals needing care may be so critical they won’t make it,” he said.


‘A mixed methods investigation of stress and wellbeing factors contributing to burnout and job satisfaction in a specialist small animal hospital’ is available here.

‘Barriers to mental health help-seeking in veterinary professionals working in Australia and New Zealand: a preliminary cross-sectional analysis’ is available here.

Anne Layton-Bennett

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