My Two Cents: Compassion, burn out and veterinary medicine

02 May My Two Cents: Compassion, burn out and veterinary medicine

by Walter Clark, DVM, DABVP






“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress.
Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
– Simon Sinek

Adam Grant thinks that people can fall into one of three categories: givers, matchers, and takers. A giver will put off what she is doing to help someone else in the company with a project or task. In the short term, the giver’s productivity may suffer (she put her work on the back burner to help out a colleague), but in the long term, a giver can make the business more productive and run more smoothly.

A matcher is someone that will also help out a coworker, but expects something in return. Quid pro quo. And a taker is self-explanatory and they LOVE givers.

I made the case in our last issue that many veterinarians would fall into the category of “givers.” I speculated that our propensity to giving might be contributing to the burnout issues (and other stress related issues) that affect our profession.

At the AVMA Business and Economic Forum 2021, Clinton Neill, PhD, assistant professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship described burnout as one of the top challenges facing veterinary medicine. His group has calculated that burnout costs the veterinary profession $1 billion a year in lost
revenue. These lost revenues are made up, in large part, from employee turnover and reduced working hours.

In addition, according to Dr. Neill, if you add in veterinary technician burnout to the economic equation, the lost revenue figure may approach $1.9 billion a year.

A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking some real money.

A Wall Street Journal article in October of last year caught my eye. The catchy headline said, “Burned Out? Maybe You Should Care Less About Your Job.”

Certainly an interesting premise and there might be something there that is applicable to veterinary medicine. But from where I sit, I’m not sure this is really going to be a practical solution for burnout in our profession. Sara Knight left her corporate job as a a high powered, senior executive in the publishing world, moved to the Dominican Republic, and wrote the best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck.”

One of her interesting quotes is “One of the things you have to ask yourself: Is this real? Is this really a thing that is part of my job? Do I really have to do it?”

Well, yeah, sometimes it is a part of your job. Getting to the practice on time and being ready to care for your patients, keeping up to date on current treatments and new techniques, and giving a damn about the animals under your care are important parts of your job.

But there are probably lots of things that you do because it’s “your job” that have nothing to do with your job. Over the years, you have probably taken on a lot of things that are just a time suck.

It’s spring in Tennessee. Maybe a little spring cleaning for your job might be in order. As we start that spring cleaning, should we take the WSJ’s advice to “care less about your job?” I think my answer would be a resounding, “Maybe.”

Sure, letting go of some of the things that aren’t important to your job is great…if you can do it. For many of us, and I am raising my hand way, way up high here, there is an emotional attachment to our jobs that is really not healthy. It subsumes our personal identity and becomes our identity.

Hi, I’m Walter. What I need to a better job of personally is to convince myself that my job is being a veterinarian, but I am not a veterinarian. I’m a person. I’m Walter.

I can’t do what the WSJ and Sara Knight suggest and embrace the magic of not caring about this profession, my job, and just letting it go. I was drawn to this profession by my deep desire to care for animals. Dr. Adam Grant to the rescue. He recently tweeted “Compassion isn’t a cause of burnout. It’s a source of energy.” And he had the data to support it.

He cited an article in the Academy of Management Journal published in April. I’ll wait a moment for you all to pull out your copy and review the article.

(Note to self: check with my postal carrier because apparently my copy got lost in the mail…again.)

The researchers, Kira Schabram and Yu Tse Heng, looked at two different types of compassion: self-directed compassion (having compassion towards yourself) and other-compassion (compassion directed to others) and found that both had positive effects.

They considered three key components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency (remember the Cornell professor that mentioned that burn-out associated efficiency costs our profession a billion or two a year in lost revenue?). The researchers showed that self-compassion remedied exhaustion and other-compassion helped with cynicism. The effect of both types of compassion was varied on efficiency. Rather than just putting our heads down and plowing through, I guess taking the time to be compassionate
may make us a bit less efficient, but the positives seem to outweigh the negatives.

Let’s put a big bow on this thing and wrap up our discussion of burnout.

1. If you buy my premise that what attracts most people to veterinary medicine is a deep desire to help animals and that desire is a prime motivator for most that enter this profession and
2. If you agree that the drive to help animals often causes those in this profession to sacrifice their time, their talents, and their treasure to this calling and
3. If you see that the compassion we give to those animals can be exhausting, physically and mentally, and
4. If you believe that the mental and physical toll can contribute to the sense of burnout that so many in the profession feel, and
5. If you find the research that compassion, both self-compassion and other-compassion, can fight those feelings of burnout, then

My conclusion would be that our profession has kind of got the other-compassion thing covered, especially in regards to the thing that is most important to most of us…compassion towards animals. Now we need to work on the self-compassion part of the equation. The research points to self-compassion as being the key to combating the exhaustion aspect of burnout.

I hate to disagree with an esteemed publication like the Wall Street Journal, but I just cannot see that caring less about our jobs is the key to avoiding burnout. I think we just need to care less about some parts of our jobs…the parts that don’t matter and refocus our drive and our passion to the parts that do matter.

First, compassion and care for the animals that we serve.

Second, an equal measure of compassion and care for ourselves.