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Keeping Your Mental Health Afloat

Jenny Moffett, BVetMed, MSc

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It’s the day from hell: 18 hours, 31 clients, and three euthanasias since you started, and you’re still at the clinic finishing paperwork.

Veterinary work can leave us physically exhausted, but what toll does it take on our mental health? 

6 Steps to Mental Health and Well-Being in Veterinary Life

1. Deal with the basics first. Are you getting a balanced diet and sufficient sleep and exercise? If not, how can you address these essential needs?

2. Develop a sense of control. Where do you want to go in your life and career, and how will you get there? How can you remove or reduce the challenges that are holding you back?

3. Set boundaries between work and home life. We might feel irreplaceable but it’s important to be selfish about “me time”; feeling exhausted will not help our clients and patients.

4. Prioritize relationships. Much of our emotional stability comes from having strong and healthy relationships with family and friends.

5. Cultivate gratitude. Writing in a “gratitude diary” once a week has been shown to improve a person’s happiness level.

6. Recognize that “perfection” is not necessary, even in the vet clinic. Where it’s not life-threatening, “good enough” is often the happier, healthier alternative.

The phenomenon of stress in the veterinary profession is worldwide. A 2003 AVMA study1 reported that more than four out of five respondents consider stress and burnout “a wellness issue that impacts the veterinary community.” More recently, an Australian study2 found one in three veterinarians reported “poor psychological health,” including signs of anxiety and depression. Even more sobering, however, is work from the UK3 that revealed that veterinarians are four times more likely than laypeople to take their own lives. As yet, we have no definite reasons behind such a staggering statistic, but a recent and comprehensive review4 suggests that work-related stressors and personality factors, when combined with knowledge of and access to lethal drugs, could be risk factors.

Suicide is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to veterinary mental health. Experts believe that each reported case reflects many more veterinary workers grappling with stress and depression on a daily basis. Clearly, attention to mental health and well-being should be a priority for the profession. Mental health is comparable to a bank account: When we are content and feel energized, our mental well-being tends to be “in the black.” But juggling work and family commitments can leave us tired and drained, resulting in too many withdrawals on mental reserves. And, as we’ve seen recently, even the biggest banks collapse without adequate funds.

Origins of the Rat Race
The field of mental well-being and happiness is no longer dominated by dubious self-help gurus; there is a growing bank of evidence-based science from which to draw guidance. In his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, leading economist Richard Layard examined the subject at societal level and found that, on average, people in the developed world are no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite average incomes having doubled.

Layard believes that a paradoxical relationship with money is causing unhappiness on a large-scale basis. He relays a story of a group of Harvard students who were asked to choose between living in two imaginary worlds with identical costs of living. In the first world, each student would receive an annual income of $50,000 while others would receive $25,000. In the second world, that student would earn $100,000 while others would receive $250,000. Most students chose the former situation—they would rather receive a lower income, as long as it was higher than their peers.

Layard explains, “People care greatly about their relative income and they would be willing to accept a significant fall in living standards, if they could move up compared with other people.” Add to the idea that people become “habituated” to their income, ie, must continue to secure an ever-higher salary to feel happy, and the basis for a rat race emerges.

The basic message from economists like Layard is to live and think beyond this vicious cycle. He suggests that we should spend our money on experiences rather than material goods, and try to cultivate an awareness of our real motivations. Yes, we have our profit margins to consider, but work satisfaction is also vital. Ask yourself, would you be better off if you invested in that acupuncture course you’ve always wanted to do, rather than in a new ultrasound? This also applies to your staff. You will have a happier workforce if you invest in education and well-chosen opportunities to expand their horizons.

Positive Psychology & Coping Skills
Positive psychologists explore what makes people happy at an individual level. Unlike traditional forms of psychology, which concentrate on treating mental illness, positive psychology aims to help us develop our own innate mental health strengths. Can you remember a moment when you were so caught up in an activity that you lost all track of time? A good example is the surgeon who is engrossed in an operation, and fails to notice when part of the ceiling falls in. Positive psychologists call such complete engagement “being in flow” and recommend it as a daily activity to improve mental well-being. Many veterinary workers find that they naturally enjoy interacting with clients, while others lose themselves with slides and books in the lab. The key is to find out what engrosses you and how you can do more of it in the workplace.

But what about the specific stresses and strains involved in veterinary work? We can’t avoid long days, emotional clients, and the toll of sick and traumatized patients; so how can we address these practically? A key strategy to protect mental health and well-being is applying coping skills. Coping effectiveness training5 (CET), another product of positive psychology, can help veterinary staff diagnose problems and deal with them. CET works from a similar concept as the Serenity prayer: “Give us grace to accept the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which can, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two.” For those veterinary problems that can be changed, for example, being short-staffed, we adopt a problem-focused approach such as creating a plan of action, using appropriate communication skills, and seeking practical advice from others. For those challenges that cannot be changed, such as being in a client-facing profession, use an emotion-focused approach, such as exercise, finding a good listener, or writing down your thoughts and feelings.

Using emotion-focused techniques to cope with changeable problems or problem-focused techniques to solve unchangeable ones may further drain our resources. This approach mirrors the logical, rational approach we use in diagnosing and treating animals. Research shows that mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and burnout have real and serious effects on veterinary workers. So the next time you, or a coworker, experiences that day from hell, keep in mind that the caregiver also needs caring for.

Useful Web Links

How happy are you? the online home of positive psychology, has quizzes to assess your current level of happiness and resources to help improve it. Registration required.

AVMA’s Wellness Resource page contains information about state veterinary wellness programs and a comprehensive list of helpful links. has useful veterinary articles looking at stress, depression, and helping staff to cope in a clinic affected by suicide.


1. AVMA wellness survey final results.
2. Psychological well-being of Australian veterinarians. Fritschi L, Morrison D, Shirangi A, Day L. Aust Vet J 87:76-81, 2009.
3. Incidence of suicide in the veterinary profession in England and Wales. Mellanby R. Vet Rec 157:415-417, 2005.
4. Veterinary surgeons and suicide: A structured review of possible influences on increased risk. Bartram DJ, Baldwin DS. Vet Rec 166:388-397, 2010.
5. Coping with stress. Bartram D, Gardner D. In Pract 30:228-231, 2008.

Dr. Moffett is director of communications at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts. A Royal Veterinary College–London graduate, she holds a master’s degree in science communication and is coeditor of Handbook of Veterinary Communication Skills (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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