A troubling trend is taking hold in the veterinary community. Suicide rates are estimated to be at least 4 times higher in the veterinary profession than the general US population,1 and 1 in 6 veterinarians has considered suicide.2 One contributing factor is burnout (ie, chronic workplace stress).3 Although burnout is not new to the veterinary profession, it was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic,4 with 86.7% of US veterinarians having professional quality of life burnout scores in the moderate or high range.3
When it feels as though declining mental health has become a norm for the industry, what can be done?
For one veterinarian, this overwhelming problem has given her motivation to take action.
Jennifer Steele, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM), a small animal internal medicine consultant with IDEXX, made a slight change in her career following a break from clinical practice. Regarding her time as an associate veterinarian during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Steele said, “It was, and I think for many people continues to be, an overwhelming time—working 14-, sometimes 15-, hour days, where I'd come home to get 3 hours of sleep and then go back and do it all again. I know a lot of people are out there doing that.” As the pandemic made working conditions increasingly unsustainable, she made a difficult decision to leave clinical practice. “I did it for as long as I could, and I finally said, ‘I have to get out,’ and I ended up leaving without anything to go to, no firm job,” Dr. Steele said.
Following her leave, Dr. Steele found an opportunity with her former employer as a consultant, and it was a much-needed change in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance. “[Consulting] has strict hours…as soon as you're done with your shift, you're done,” said Dr. Steele. “I have loved that job because it enables me to help vets. We're empowering them to do more, and I really feel that I am impacting more patients' lives with this job.”
A New Challenge
With more flexibility in her work schedule, Dr. Steele has found time to embrace a new challenge: competing in the 2023 IRONMAN Wisconsin. The triathlon is a massive athletic feat, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.2-mile run.
Feeling inspired after watching people of “all ages, all body types” cross the finish line well into the night, Dr. Steele participated in her first full IRONMAN in 2013 and has participated in several half-IRONMANs over the years.
Training for the upcoming triathlon has meant dedicating mornings before her shifts and weekends to working with a coach. Although this is a significant time and energy commitment on top of working a full-time job, Dr. Steele has a strong motivating force driving her to the finish line: Not One More Vet.5
Not One More Vet
Not One More Vet was founded in 2014 following the suicide of world-renowned veterinarian and animal behaviorist, Dr. Sophia Yin, and is dedicated to improving mental wellness within the profession so veterinary professionals can survive and thrive through education, resources, and support.
The cause hits home for Dr. Steele, and she hopes not only to raise money for the organization, but also awareness inside and outside the veterinary community. “I think we in the profession are increasingly aware of mental health, and I think most veterinary health care professionals know about Not One More Vet. The hope is raising the awareness because (NOMV resources) might not be at the forefront of their mind,” said Dr. Steele.
For others in the veterinary profession going through the same struggles, Dr. Steele often advises, “Take care of yourself, and continue to do the things outside of veterinary medicine that give you joy. Always make a point of doing that, and make time for your friends and family. If you find that work is not allowing you to do so, then take a pause. I think it comes down to first talking to management, saying, ‘This is getting to be too much,’ and trying to listen to your body, listen to your emotions.”
“The hard part is outside of the profession, getting people to understand [what veterinary professionals go through], that's what I struggle with,” said Dr. Steele. She hopes her participation in the IRONMAN will help raise awareness among pet owners of what veterinary professionals as a whole are going through.