'Not all puppies and kittens': Vet students learning about job stress, burnout

·4 min read

The Atlantic Veterinary College is working to teach students about some of the less pleasant realities of the job that can lead to stress and burnout.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association warned last week about stress and burnout on the job.

Dr. Leigh Lamont, the associate dean of academic and student affairs for the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, says she was drawn to veterinary medicine because she cares deeply about animals and wanted to provide the best care possible.

Then she discovered there were "moral stressors," such as not being able to treat an animal that could be helped. As well, many vets deal with death almost daily, she said.

"It's a challenging balancing act at times to try to maintain that compassion and desire to provide the best possible care for your patient and your client, without taking an undue burden on yourself that's going to limit your ability to, kind of, have a long and hopefully fulfilling career," Lamont said.

"Sometimes I would find myself alongside my clients going through the grieving process with them," she said. "Being prepared for facing those stressors is something that maybe some of us as practising vets, we haven't always done a good job of recognizing that and prioritizing our own health and well-being."

'I felt immense guilt'

Ignoring or glossing over those issues can set vets up for high levels of work-related stress and burnout, Lamont said.

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Nicole Anne Photography

"We can't rely on simply exposing our students while they're on their clinical rotations in their final year of study; that's not enough," she said.

Dr. Courtney Judson can attest to that. She left private veterinary practice after five years to work for the federal government, after struggling with long hours and emotional challenges.

"I found it especially challenging dealing with clients who had financial constraints and couldn't afford treatment for their pets when it was needed," Judson said, noting many people don't consider the long-term financial cost of welcoming a pet into their family.

"I felt immense guilt when a client had to go without treatment or to surrender their pet — or even worse, euthanize their pet — because they didn't have the funds to treat them," she said. She also found it difficult to deal with highly demanding pet owners, and those who accused vets of only being in their jobs "for the money."

After taking a job as a veterinarian with the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency in P.E.I., Judson said her happiness, mental health and quality of life took a huge positive leap.

'Not all puppies and kittens'

In the past few years the Atlantic Veterinary College has developed curriculum starting in the first year called "professional foundations" — core programming with three themes.

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UPEI Marketing and Communications

The first is to help students recognize and understand moral stressors vets face daily and give them a framework for ethical decision-making, as well as encourage them to check in on their own well-being regularly.

The second is better client communication training. "We really want to help our students manage these so-called difficult conversations," Lamont said.

Third, they've begun offering sessions on well-being.

"It's important that students see their faculty members — who are practising vets — that they see us model healthy, sustainable self-care practices," she said. The college has hired a wellness facilitator educated in mental health who promotes awareness of the challenges of veterinary medicine and helps students who are struggling.

"It is not all puppies and kittens every day — so part of it is just helping increase their awareness," Lamont said. Introducing students in their first year helps them develop coping strategies they can hone as they learn, she said.

Judson agrees. She advises students considering veterinary medicine to take a hard look at they want from their lives, not just their careers.

"If they hope to someday have a family and they enjoy having their weekends and holidays to themselves or to spend with family and friends, it may be worth considering a different profession," she said. "Veterinary medicine is very intense."

She advises current vet students not to answer questions from friends or social media related to veterinary medicine.

And Judson advises pet owners to invest in pet insurance in case of an accident or illness.

"You will use it, I can almost guarantee it," she said.

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