Welcome to episode 10 of Paws Claws and Wet Noses – the kiwi veterinary podcast celebrating all creatures great and small and the fantabulous professionals who look after them all. 

As well as being episode 10, it’s also the fourth in the series to support the petition I’m lodging with the NZ government to help get more vets into New Zealand to help alleviate the dire shortage that our vets are facing in-clinic today. 

NB: the petition closes on 31 January 2021

YOU can help make a difference by signing the petition – all online signatures are confidential – please visit and share getvets.nz to do your little bit to support your favourite veterinarian – thanks!

Today we’re going to look at some strategies to help you counter compassion fatigue – both as an individual veterinarian and, if you’re a clinic owner or practice manager, a few different things you can implement in your clinic.

We’re going to hear an excerpt from a Ted-X talk, as well as a couple of sound bites from veterinary professionals and we’re going to finish up with some positive psychology and mindfulness strategies for implementation.  

But before we get to those, I’d like to talk a bit about a book I’m waiting to get my hands on.  I tried to order the digital edition over the Christmas break but it appears there was something wrong with how the e-book code was set up which meant I couldn’t buy it. 

After I’ve read the book I’ll do a more in-depth review in another show.  You may have already read the book yourself, of have it on your bookshelf.  If you have, I’d love to get your take on it. 

Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian

According to Australian Psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton, the best way to tackle the unique nature of veterinary stress that can lead to anxiety, depression and suicide is to use evidence-based research to create an intervention able to have a scientifically measurable positive impact on wellbeing.

That’s why psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton wrote Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian.

She spent over 15 years researching, working with thousands of stressed vets, and consulting with industry associations, practice managers and owners.

In her book she combines reading on mindfulness, positive psychology, wellbeing, and resiliency training to create a ‘toolkit’ of practical tasks and tips to teach people how to cope with everyday pressures, so they no longer feel like suicide is the only way out.

Its approach has been tested with statistically significant results showing reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and negative affect.

As you know, working in the veterinary profession can be a rewarding, challenging and demanding career.  It requires a passion for animals, excellent interpersonal skills and a strong work ethic.

the dark side of veterinary medicine

It also has a dark and very dangerous side.

The suicide rate for veterinarians as measured across Australia, the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada is almost four times higher than the general population.

This suicide risk has been shown to surface at graduation and remain for the rest of a vet’s working life.

As I’ve talked about in the previous three episodes in this series, the veterinary profession in Godzone Aotearoa New Zealand is currently facing a severe mental health crisis.

You know only too well what it’s like – the effects of working long hours, performing euthanasia on animals, emotional pressure, financial issues, unrealistic expectations, and dealing with distressed clients all place considerable stress on both the veterinary professional yourself, and your families at home.

It’s no secret that failure to cope with such stress upsets mental wellbeing and can lead to serious emotional, physical, and behavioural issues.

Strategies across the globe such as awareness campaigns, crisis support, mentoring, and calls for changes to drug regulation are currently trying to encourage more vets to acknowledge the issue for themselves and their colleagues and to seek help.

Professional veterinary member groups are using programs based on concepts such as ‘compassion fatigue’, resilience, and the clear need to care for oneself, in further efforts to reduce vet stress.

NZVA initiative

Last year in Godzone, the NZ Vet Association ran an 8 week pilot Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and then offered it to members back in September.  I attended a lunchtime Zoom meeting and all those who had participated in the pilot programme spoke very highly of it.  

So if you’re not a member of the Vet Association, this could be a reason to join because the return on your investment of being able to participate in programmes like this with your peers is priceless.

I’ll include contact links for the NZVA on the show notes page for you too.

The 2018 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study recommended that employers educate all team members on the importance of mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Hamilton’s postgraduate research at the University of Southern Queensland focussed on how key evidence-based psychological strategies could be used to decrease the risk of psychological ill-health and suicide by vets due to their day-to-day stress levels.

What she found was that the best way to tackle the unique nature of veterinary stress was to combine certain psychoeducational elements.

That meant specific education on the principles of positive psychology, mindfulness, and ACT – which is acceptance and commitment therapy – along with a ‘toolkit’ of practical tasks from these fields.

Combining these elements with supportive strategies such as stress management and communication tips results in a holistic intervention able to have a scientifically measurable positive impact on wellbeing.

Dr Hamilton uses this approach in her popular Coping and Wellbeing for Veterinary Professionals workshop.

Building on this workshop, she wrote Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian as a cost-effective highly accessible way to empower vets in their everyday work lives to use psychological knowledge and skills to combat stress, burnout, anxiety, depression and suicide.

It’s described as an easy read for individual vets both experienced and freshly minted and sits well with existing veterinary HR approaches as well as supporting face-to-face counselling and industry association mental health programs.

In it is also a clear call-to-arms for veterinary industry leaders.

The book is structured in four sections.

The first two provide vets with both an understanding and an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of their work and the mental health issues that come with that work.

There’s a section on psychology, which provides a comprehensive overview of several psychological fields that assist wellbeing.

And then the final section includes specially selected strategies along with some references to a vet’s workday.

Together, these elements result in a unique resource able to provide self-help as well as support for existing vet wellbeing programs.

Research has shown the importance of reinforcing the immediate-term effects of mental health interventions with take-home resources — something that reminds people of the information they’ve learnt and is able to be referred back to in difficult times.

For some who take it off a practice shelf, the book will simply be a confirmation that you or one of your colleagues, isn’t alone in experiencing stress and that your issues are understood.

For others you’ll find practical tools helpful in your working day.

If you’re a leader it might help to guide your interactions with staff, or it might help someone to seek professional help.

That’s why the book’s not only popular with individuals working in local vet practices, it’s also been taken up by vet schools, large vet hospitals and across hundreds of practices managed by ‘mega’ practice groups.

For the corporate clinics, the book is seen as a major cost-effective mental health investment for the benefit of their staff and a commitment to the global fight against workplace suicide.

As we all already know, the veterinary industry is, in fact, currently attracting significant private equity investment on a global scale as these mega practice groups buy up traditional owner-operator veterinary clinics en masse. 

On top of this, you’ve got major pet supply companies expanding into veterinary services.

Every week I speak with vets here in Godzone who’re fearful of a detrimental culture change for a profession that’s already under pressure.

Because I like to think of myself as an optimist, I believe this ‘corporatisation of veterinary medicine’ can be positive for the profession because – when done respectfully and throughtfully – it creates an injection of fresh funds and infrastructure that enables it to support veterinary teams and staff.

If you’re listening to this podcast, I encourage you to bulk buy Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian – a copy for each of your team members, plus a few to keep on your clinic’s library.

Then start implementing the techniques and strategies recommended in the book.  If you haven’t got a clue how to do that, then please get in touch with me because I’d love to help you run such a programme in your clinic. 

It could save the life of one of your precious team members!

mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains

Now, changing the subject ever so slightly, I went looking for “evidence-based research” around the topic of mindfulness and resilience.

And I stumbled upon a Ted X talk by Richard Davison who wanted to know why is it that some people are more vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows and others more resilient?

Richard Davidson is Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Founder & Director of the Centre for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Davidson’s research is focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing including meditation and related contemplative practices.

He’s published more than 400 articles and is co-author of “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” and “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body”, both published by Penguin.

Davidson has been recognised for his research through various awards, such as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award and an Established Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders (NARSAD). 

He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has been teaching psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1984.   

In this Ted-X talk – where I’ve extracted the guts of his talk – and removed all the clapping and intro music for you – you’ll hear Davidson talk about how mindfulness can improve well-being. 

He outlines strategies to boost four components of a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.

At the time, he was researching how mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains and what we know about brains of individuals showing more resilience than others.   

His research is focused on the neural bases of emotion, and emotional style, and methods to promote human flourishing, including meditation and related contemplative practices.

In the above Ted-X talk, Davidson talks about MINDFULNESS – so what is it and how can it make a difference to your everyday life as a veterinary professional?

in-clinic mindfulness

Here’s a super-short interview from Canada. 

In this clip, Dr Sarah Wooten interviews Dr Steve Noonan, DVM, CPCC of Effecti-Vet Corporation of Ontario, Canada.  

According to Dr Noonan, distractedly standing in the exam room while your client explains their pet’s problem is not the same as “being there.”

He explains what it is to be mindful in the practice and why he thinks it’s crucial

Of course, it’s all well and good hearing this is what’s good for you to do – but what does that mean and how can you put some of that into practice yourself?

simple evidence-based mindfulness techniques

Here’s a short clip on some simple evidence-based mindfulness strategies to help you create a feeling of calm while caring for your patients and during these ever-challenging and high stress times. 

These techniques will enable you to build on the incredible strength of your compassion – which you already possess – to take care of YOU with tools you can incorporate into your life TODAY.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

If any of this has whetted your appetite for more info – either for you personally or as something you can implement into your clinic, then think about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course the NZVA was running through 2020. 

If you can answer YES to any of these questions then the chances are high you’ll benefit:

  • Do you set impossibly high standards for yourself?
  • Do you work long hours and feel under pressure?
  • Do you take stress and worries about work home with you?
  • Do you sometimes have a sense of isolation?
  • Is your fuse, your patience getting shorter and shorter?
  • Do you suffer from poor sleep?  Are you always tired?
  • Do you have aches and pains that you’ve been ignoring?
  • Has life recently thrown you a curved ball of some kind?

I think the last question is particularly relevant – because 2020 threw every single person a curve ball – its effects of which we’re still dealing with.

Participating on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, you’ll discover how to:

  • Treat YOURSELF better (on the inside)
  • Start making friends with your body
  • Develop strategies to help you ride through situations
  • Mobilise inner mind resources
  • See thoughts as thoughts and not necessarily as the truth
  • Relax and ground yourself
  • Settle your mind

Why this particular course?   Because:

  • It’s backed up with 40 years of evidence to show its effectiveness
  • It’s taught by a highly experienced and skilled Clinical Psychologist
  • Those 10 veterinarians who took part in the first pilot prog in 2019 said it was effective and they experienced significantly improved wellbeing.  I’m sure those who participated in the prog at the end of 2020 will say the same thing.   
  • You’ll be participating on the prog with a group of your peers who really get and understand the stresses you’re under.

Give Megan a call at the NZVA to find out when the next prog is planned for 2021 and/or how you can get hold of the prog facilitator.   Email Megan at megan.miller@vets.org.nz 

Please let her know you heard about this prog through Paws Claws and Wet Noses – thanks!

In summary

Compassion fatigue is treatable – but it’s a bit like you running a marathon – only you can put in the training so you get to cross the finish line – sadly, no one else can do it for us.

You can buy a copy of Nadine Hamilton’s book – Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian – and follow her steps, one at a time.

You can set up the book as part of some soft CPD or health and wellness prog inside your clinic.  If you’d like someone to facilitate it for you, then please give me a call – I’m an experienced workshop facilitator and leader.

If you’re not a member yet, you can join the NZVA and then implement the  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction either individually or as a clinic group at your clinic – by getting in touch with Megan Miller.

And if you’re teeting at the very edge of the cliff, feeling like you’re about to topple over, please take a step back and call 111 NOW. 

If the edge of the cliff is getting closer by the minute, hour or day, please reach out to someone NOW.    If you feel like you don’t have anyone you can talk to, then please call 0800 543 354 – that’s Lifeline – someone there is ready to talk to you right now.

Thank you for listening to Paws Claws and Wet Noses.  The biggest way you can help is to leave a comment at iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listened to this podcast.  Your comment will help spread the internet’s algorithms’ love so more people can find it.   

You can subscribe to Paws Claws and Wet Noses through any of the major podcast channels – iTunes, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify or over at the Paws Claws Wet Noses dot FM website.

If you’re listening to this show before 31 January 2021 then I would really appreciate you showing your support by signing the parliamentary petition at getvets.nz and then sharing that with your friends, rellies and whanau – getvets.nz.

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