Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths

man wearing face mask using his phone in the dark
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Long before Covid-19 arrived, vets and vet nurses were quiet, hard workers who didn’t complain about less than ideal working conditions. And, possibly unbeknownst to most of the pet owning public, for many veterinary staff, challenging working conditions were the norm.

Since this crisis hit, these essential workers are not getting much opportunity or airtime to communicate the difficulties they currently face at work.

The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has put the challenges of veterinary work on steroids.

I know a bit about what it takes to work in this industry.

I fell in love with veterinary work at fifteen, when I started volunteering at a local vet clinic. I wiped down tables, cleaned cages, and held animals. Then I started work as a casual junior vet nurse on Saturday mornings.

I committed the second half of my teenage years to the tunnel visioned hard work it took to get into veterinary science at university.

I worked as a small animal vet for twenty years, in many different practices in Australia and the UK. Working conditions ranged from excellent to atrocious.

Thanks to my experiences, I know this:

Vets don’t talk about their work stresses outside their own tightly knit vet circles. Some of us don’t even confide our struggles to our colleagues. We talk about our cases in detail for hours, but many of us still cringe at opening up about the state of our mental health.

Our clients get our kindness, our compassion our sympathy our skills our knowledge, our communication skills. But they never see our vulnerability. They don’t understand how high our risk of burn out (borne of caring too much and being overworked and undervalued) is.

They don’t see that when we walk through the door of the clinic our rostered working hours become irrelevant because we give ourselves over completely to everyone else who walks through that door after us.

Our clients don’t feel our pain when we lose yet another amazing member of our profession to its sky-high suicide rates.

I am currently taking a break from veterinary work while I concentrate on writing and mental health advocacy work. But I have many vet friends who are out there working and hurting.

I have spent the last couple of weeks collecting descriptions of work life from some of my (currently working) veterinary friends and contacts, because I believe that for the veterinary profession to survive this pandemic with its collective mental health relatively intact, the pet owning public needs to know about the difficulties its workers face at this time.

Here are some of the (summarised, paraphrased, and quoted) insights these vets generously shared with me:

On Covid-19 Regulations:

Some aspects of veterinary work make social distancing between staff impossible. For example, it is not feasible for a nurse giving a wriggly, excited puppy a cuddle and a vet looking in its ears with an otoscope, to be 1.5 metres apart.

Some of the protocols necessary to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission, such as contactless consultations (where the owner waits outside the clinic in their car, the pet is transported inside by a nurse in PPE, the vet examines the pet and then phones the owner to discuss further diagnostics or treatment), severely hamper efficiency and slow everything down.

Vets are used to working as efficiently as possible:

‘Normally I would type the history while the owner is in the consult and do an exam in between taking notes. Now I can only do one of these things at a time.’

Contactless consultations also limit a vet’s ability to read their client’s body language during the consultation, which can interfere with effective communication between vet and client.

Pets can be more anxious when separated from their owners. This may mean it takes longer to perform a physical exam, or it may be impossible to do as thoroughly as the vet would like.

Covid-19 level cleaning recommended between consults is more labour intensive and takes longer than usual.

On Finances

Downsizing or closure of a practice due to further restrictions or a Covid-19 infection will have negative effects on the practice’s financial stability very quickly.

‘The nature of small to medium sized veterinary practices even in normal times is to run with incredible efficiency, but still on very low margins. They cannot sustain even mild to moderate downturns. They will not survive and jobs will be lost long before the drop of 30% revenue occurs required to be eligible for the Job Keeper Payment.’

Locum vets are particularly vulnerable to job loss now. As practices work to minimise the risk of a Covid-19 infection in their permanent staff, many locum vets are having their shifts cancelled, and are facing the financial difficulties and mental health challenges that come with job loss.

Vets are also more aware than ever of the financial constraints facing many of their clients.

‘It is super sad when you see a client who wants to do everything for their pet, but they have lost their job and can’t afford it. It breaks my heart. I am doing a surgery at a 25% discount tomorrow. The client didn’t ask for it, but I feel so sad for them.’

‘I feel even more conscious of the usual dilemma we have in vet practice of having to mix financial discussions with emotive ones as most people are understandably a lot more stretched financially right now. But veterinary practices are also under a lot more financial stress and if our invoices are not paid, there won’t be a vet for clients to take their animal to.’

And now more than ever vets are at risk of being on the receiving end of their clients’ financial frustrations.

‘I’ve already been abused in the car park once this week and I am preparing myself for a lot more of that to come as the stress is almost palpable in the air.’

On Mental Health

Vets often hold themselves to a very high standard. Under sub optimal working conditions that pressure will increase stress levels further.

‘Veterinary practice is already an emotionally draining vocation with highs and lows every day. Our staff feel responsible for their patients and care for our clients. And it goes against the grain to just drop our standards of care because of what’s going on. So, we are not going to start cutting corners.’

Many clinics have split their staff into two or more teams to reduce the chance of the whole clinic having to close if one staff member contracts Covid-19. This means vets and nurses may be working under short staffed conditions and even longer hours than usual:

‘The phones are ringing constantly. We hang up and pick up the next one. I am answering dozens of phone calls daily as a vet, as well as being my own anaesthetist, recovery nurse, and doing the usual vet things. And right now none of us have regular access to our stress relieving hobbies.’

Splitting staff into teams at work usually also means no contact between teams outside of work.

‘There were genuinely tears after the last ‘normal’ shift as people realised they may not see some of their friends for weeks, months even.

Before Covid-19 brought added work stressors with it, vets were already at a high risk for mental ill health. This knowledge weighs heavily on many of us:

‘I’m concerned that abuse of controlled substances will increase and don’t even want to think about the suicide issue the veterinary industry already faces.’

To Clients

Vets appreciate the many clients who are doing the things that make their work less stressful, such as practicing social distancing, being patient when things take longer than normal, and assessing what might constitute an essential phone call.

For example, now is not the time to phone your vet clinic for a lengthy discussion about which breed of cat you should get.

‘If the public can show extra understanding towards vets and vet nurses that will only be a good thing. We are not the only profession under strain but the pressures we are under are very real. Everything is taking longer so people need to be patient.’

‘We place a lot of blind faith in the honesty of strangers at the moment…I feel angry when I hear of my colleagues having got to the end of a consult only to have a client mention that they just came back from a cruise a week ago.’

‘Thankfully 99% of our clients are understanding and adhering to protocols without complaint, but I don’t think they quite understand how hard everything is for us right now.’

Shortages

‘The shortage of equipment is tricky – no hand sanitiser, limited paper towels and gloves. It makes it hard to follow the guidelines to use hand sanitiser between every patient. Some human medications we use are in short supply, which will be hard to explain to clients when their pet’s medication needs to be stopped suddenly.’

‘We have also been asked to supply a list of things we can donate if needed – such as ventilators, propofol, midazolam, and surgical gowns and gloves.’

What is getting us through?

Now more than ever, humour, teamwork and appreciative clients balance out the challenges of veterinary work.

‘On the positive side of things, I work with a group of amazing humans and the way we all have each other’s backs has definitely shone even more so in recent times.’

‘On the upside we have always been good at the ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Also, we were born for this – we just need to pretend every person is a parvo puppy!’

(Parvovirus is a highly infectious, potentially fatal viral infection, most common in puppies, and requires full isolation nursing.)

Our team are amazing and have chosen to pull together with a plan to fight and minimise risks to client and staff safety, mitigate risk to the business and work toward sustainability.’

‘We have had wonderful support from our clients and community who have commended us for our initiatives during this pandemic to ensure both human and animal welfare,’

To conclude I will reach for words one of my close vet friends passed on to me. Even though upper management of veterinary practices, can be notoriously out of touch with the needs of its veterinary workers, this directive from the upper management of my friend’s practice encapsulates perfectly what I would want all vets working through this pandemic to hold close to each day, and what I would want all veterinary clients to be aware of and respect:

‘Throughout our career, veterinarians have always put our patients first, then our clients, then ourselves. In this pandemic, we must put our safety and the safety of our nurses and support staff first.’

 

You may also like to read:

Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

The Resignation: One Year On

Author: anitalinkthoughtfood

Writer, Mental Health Advocate, Veterinarian For more, visit me at Thought Food.

26 thoughts on “Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths”

    1. Also as a practice manager of a veterinarian hospital, having worked the nurse and receptionist position. I speak from experience that the receptionist have it much harder being the front line. The clients are upset with them because they can’t get in when they want. And the staff upset because of the schedule being so booked. Our practice is a busy one but since covid and so many being home with their pets the phones are relentless. Just trying to call clients back in a timely manner, dealing with walk ins and scheduled appts has brought multitasking for these staff members to a whole new level.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I couldn’t agree more, our nurses and receptionist need to be given all the support they deserve, and big pay rises for dealing with some of the negative emotions thrown their way.

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  1. This is an excellent article Anita. I personally think that the vet industry needs an overhaul of sorts and much much more public education about what vets and vet nurses do, why they do it and how relatively little they get paid.

    I think a lot of the public expected that the vets are getting paid like a human medical doctor because of how expensive it can be to get an animal treated at the vet. And considering what a vet can and does do within the one clinic, they probably should be getting paid like an MD.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Terry. I agree, vets are underpaid for their level of expertise and stress levels. I believe encouraging pet owners to take out pet insurance is helpful because it reduces the financial stress around veterinary treatment. Of course the problem is that not everyone can even afford pet insurance. It is a complex issue. I do believe the first step is to talk about it. Anyway – thanks again for stopping in.

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  2. Very interesting experience you’ve shared with us. I had no idea of the serious problems you face in your job. Even burnout and suicide. Gosh, no idea at all. Of course these days are making everything much harder. I love pets and have a profound respect for their vets. Never thought how stressful your work could be. Wish you all the best believing this pandemic will be soon remembered as a past heavy nightmare. Thank you for sharing. Kind regards.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anita, not sure whether you’re in the UK or Australia but at least in Oz, things really aren’t that bad in the Vet game.Every job has its stresses, try being a medic in the current environment if you want stress and hardship. I’ve been a vet for 35 years and I sometime struggle to understand how our profession which was populated with practical, resourceful and resilient people has been replaced by significant numbers of graduates that frankly aren’t suited to this job emotionally. If a Veterinary team has adapted (as ours has) to the changes necessary with Covid-19 then where’s the issue. Try being a dentist right now, most have lost 70% of their income. Practices with good profitability and high numbers of insured clients are still doing fine. Badly run businesses are always going to get hit hardest during tough times. The vet industry is much more recession proof than most, so we should get through tough times ok.
    I count my lucky stars that I’m a vet right now, and perhaps others should too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve

      Thank for taking the time to read and comment. I’m happy to hear things are running very smoothly in your practice and you have adapted quickly, perfectly and (what sounds like) seamlessly to the changes Covid-19 has brought to veterinary working life.

      When I chose to research and write this article it was not to take away from the hardships of medics, dentists, teachers or any other essential workers having a difficult time at the moment. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This article was written based on the experiences of several vets working at the moment, and includes accounts from associate vets, practice managing vets, and specialist vets. None are new or even recent graduates, with all having between fifteen and twenty five years experience in practice.

      I agree some graduates – especially more recent graduates may not be suited to this job emotionally. But if they are not, they tend to leave the profession before the ten year mark. The vets I based this article on are all practical, resourceful, and incredibly resilient, and very much emotionally suited to the work. Some work in well run practices, others don’t. In an ideal world all practices should be run with not only good profitability and high numbers of insured clients but also happy well managed staff. But after 20 years experience working in many different practices I know (and I am sure you are aware) that that is not the reality. As employees, vets have to chose the practices they work in as carefully as their employers chose them.

      I also agree that the vet industry is more recession proof than many. But whether we are a mentally healthy profession (even in non- Covid times) is another matter.

      Anyway, thanks again for commenting. Always good to get different points of view, and I hope all continues well for you.

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  4. To be honest I just don’t get this. While I agree there are additional stressors, or at least different ones compared to normal work, I think if anything we are in a privileged position. We have guaranteed employment being considered an essential service. We are used to dealing with high stress environments. We understand contagion, managing risk, personal protection, best guess decisions on information with variable confidence, (lack of lab tests, unreliable history, uncooperative patients). Work has quietened down through the suspension of routine vaccinations and sterilisations. We don’t suffer the boredom of unemployment and home isolation like many. For me if anything I dread going back to normal when, like after a long public holiday, we get hit with a backlog of vaccinations, speys and the regular sick patients. It’s not up to the public to worry about us. It is everyone’s duty to keep their shit together, deal with the uncertainty and manage their stress as best as possible. Many people, clients or not, are struggling with this. That they take it out on staff at vet practices is not fair. But neither is copping it at the supermarket checkout, on the street, or as any other member of the public. If anything it is beholden on us as vets to interpret our clients anxieties, take into consideration many people are not their best selves at the moment. And use our accumulated years of dealing with stressed clients, uncertainty, disease management and changing circumstance, to provide support beyond the simple care for someone’s anxious fluffy terrier or overgrooming dysuric cat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.You make a lot of valid points and I would have loved to have had access to them in time to include in this article. I completely agree it is a privilege to have work and part of this article acknowledges that vets have many of the skills and experiences to deal with what is thrown at them at the moment. This article represented the thoughts and opinions contributed by seven vets, and none of them was looking for the public to worry about them. They are all experienced vets who are very good at ‘keeping their shit together, dealing with uncertainty, and managing their stress…’ They were just describing their experiences and feelings about their work. This doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate their privilege. It doesn’t mean they don’t love many aspects of their work. Talking about these (or any) work challenges is not something vets do a lot of. I don’t happen to believe having conversations around those challenges cancels out the duty of care we have towards our clients and patients. But perhaps having these conversations may improve the mental health of some vets out there, and even reduce the profession’s high suicide rates.

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      1. It’s interesting seeing the replies from other vet and nurses in the profession. Clearly there are many that are struggling. And it’s a topic that has been discussed in the profession for years. So it’s good that there’s a movement toward addressing the high rates of anxiety and mental health issues in the profession. However as much as it is good to have a forum for vets to feel free to vent, feeling open to express that anxiety is only the very beginning of the process. For those who feel that this is their reality, I hope you realise that there are also those within the profession who are not struggling. Who are managing well within the demanding confines of the job, yet experience the same stressors day in day out as you do. That there are approaches that can be learned, not just in dealing with the accumulated stress and anxiety (quality time and interests outside work, exercise, meditation, counselling) but also the attitudes you take to work. Some of the expected or presumed qualities of being a vet/nurse, are also likely to be ones that are not well suited to good adaptation to the profession… perfectionism and intellectual rigor (at the expense of emotional self awareness), independence (lack of collaboration), ambition (pride and competitiveness), focus (narrowness of perspective), apparent bottomless well of empathy and compassion (to the detriment of self care and a lack of good boundaries). I could go on but the point is, there’s probably more to learn from those who are managing well than hoping for change from outside the profession, or better treatment from the general public. The truth is, we vets are fallible, limited, over extended ordinary people and our job demands more from us than we are sometimes physically able to perform. So accepting our limits and being kind to ourselves, not feeling shame for our limitations, and learning that we are all human, and it is, just a job, and there are healthier ways of relating to it, could go a long way to making the profession a place we are happy to stay.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I could not agree more on most of this, especially the perceived qualities of what it takes to be a good vet or nurse and sustain this with good mental health.

          The original article was not about hoping for change from outside the profession although I don’t think it hurts to occasionally highlight the misperceptions the general public have about the veterinary profession.

          I do agree there is more to learn from those who are managing well in the profession. But for that to happen, those who are managing well need to show empathy toward those who are not, rather than making derogatory comments about ‘ it being everyone’s duty to keep their shit together’ or ‘that no one really cares about a whingefest’ (both feedback comments on this article from people who sound like they are managing well). As a profession that needs and uses excellent communication skills to interact with its clients, this kind of language just implies that those who are managing well view themselves as superior to those who aren’t. It is divisive and helps no one.

          On the subject of communicating effectively with clients about the costs of veterinary treatments, you may be interested in:

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            1. I regret if my initial comments were read as derogatory to yourself or other members of the profession. I’ve re-read my comments and felt I made it clear that wasn’t my intention. Nor to indicate that if one manages the stressors associated with the profession effectively, that it is a put down to those who struggle. I do stand by my comment, that if one has effectively reflected on and expressed the difficulties and personal struggles, that there is something to be learnt from those who have learned to manage stress reasonably well, rather than reiterate the negative values of those who are still struggling. There are beliefs and attitudes well ingrained in the profession which are neither healthy nor helpful to a happy life and challenging those values may be confronting, but ultimately the healthiest way forward. 😊

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Thank you David – for all of your thoughtful comments. I agree that while talking about the challenging aspects of the profession is a first step, on its own it doesn’t achieve much. I don’t know if you are an employed vet or whether you work for yourself and/or employ other vets, but there is a great book by Dr Nadine Hamilton that might be worth taking a look at and then passing on to any vets who may be struggling, or even just purchasing for your practice library. It is called Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian: An Evidence-Based Solution to Increase Wellbeing and is available online including here on amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/Coping-Stress-Burnout-Veterinarian-Evidence-Based/dp/1925644197
              Thanks again for engaging in this discussion. You have added a valuable perspective, and it sounds like you are making a lot of good conscious choices to manage your work life well.

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  5. I go out to the car and get hx from 2m away and then take animal back to clinic. Do exam with nurse then take animal back. It’s not too much more time. I appreciate efforts to improve veterinary mental well being but articles for general public need to be more succinct…no one really cares about a whingefest. I would like to see an article about boundaries. Most of the problems in practice are to do with poor management and poor boundaries. Another article on good management and happy teams with examples would be great…ultimately these are the things that we can do to change things.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It is always good to hear about what is working well for people. Important to remember that what works for one practice may not work for another and it may have nothing to do with poor management or poor boundaries. This article is an opinion piece based on the feedback from seven vets all currently working in small animal practice, all between 15 and 25 years post graduation. Some are in management positions of very well managed practices. The content represented both positive and negative feelings they had about their work at the moment. This article was not necessarily written to instruct the general public, but to give the featured vets a chance to communicate their lived experience. Invalidating that lived experience as a ‘whingefest that no one cares about’ is everything that is wrong with the mental health of this profession. One of the main themes of this website is promoting mental health. For some articles I occasionally draw on my long experience working as a small animal vet or the experiences of my friends in an industry riddled with poor mental health and very high suicide rates. Articles including details of veterinary practice management are outside the scope of this blog. However, it sounds as though you are very knowledgeable in this area. So, if you’d like to write an article on good veterinary practice management and happy teams, I’d be happy to edit it for you to distribute in the veterinary and wider community.

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  6. I have passed this article to many friends, family and coworkers. It really captures everything we are feeling going into work each day. And there is hardly any articles relating to the veterinary field and our struggles-especially during this time. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not a vet, just a Certified Technician from the States, but I wanted to say thank you for writing this. While I’m happy for those posting that this isn’t how they feel, I would be willing to bet money that they are the minority in the veterinary community. This article is currently being shared amongst all my friends in the field, and we couldn’t agree more. We’re stressed out and exhausted, and want to thank you for so eloquently stating what we all are feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Andrea – Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts about this article. It means a lot to me. And don’t undervalue yourself as a certified technician. The entire veterinary industry could not exist without our hard working, underpaid veterinary nurses and technicians. As vets there is no way we could do our jobs without you. Again, thank you for your kind words.

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  8. I think your post is an accurate reflection of what’s going on. I applaud the vets who have replied to your post, who are more, as I call them, “bombproof”, than other colleagues might be. They are right too in what they say. As professionals, we should ideally be as calm and understanding as the ideal image of a vet is portrayed.
    We’re all human though and some are more robust than others. Still, whether we’re “just get on with it types”, “snowflakes” or “emotional drama queens, ” as vets we always try to do our best for the animal and owner concerned.
    I’ve been a vet for 25 years plus and despite that I’m more on the “emotional drama queen” spectrum. It’s all about mindset apparently, or so I’ve been told.
    Life, births, marriages and deaths have taught me that human life is the most important thing. You can get another pet when it dies, as crushing as it is, but if you or your kid or your parent dies because you gave them Covid19, that you got from an owner, then it brings the emergency anal gland appointment into perspective. Social distancing in a vet practice is not that easy. You can pick up a cat basket from a car park floor in a socially distant manner, but you can’t pass a dog on a lead back to an owner, as your arms are not 2m long.
    Still we all do our best to see what needs to be seen on skeleton crews, split teams and longer hours. I am grateful for the wage and to get out of the house. I am finding it more stressful though and if I can I will be leaving the profession for an even lower paid job with less stress and lower customer expectations. I’ll leave the profession to the dedicated bombproof types. Hats off to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to not only read, but comment. We all bring different strengths to the profession. I don’t believe the vets you describe as ‘bombproof’ are necessarily better at or more suited to veterinary work. Knowing yourself and how you work best is key to a sticking with a veterinary career.
      In the first five years of my working life I burnt out and nearly gave it away. In large part it was due to working in practices with protocols that were wrong for me. I have always preferred thoroughness over speed. So when I took a job in a practice in a very low socioeconomic area in London that had five minute consultations, it was unsurprising I only lasted 6 months. The last job I worked in before I took the break I am currently on was all about the quality of the work, many of the owners had pet insurance, and perhaps most importantly my employer really valued me. I stayed on for nearly 15 years, got back to loving my work, and it was a hard decision to leave.

      Also important to remember that often the vets who appear infallible and as though they are managing perfectly, are not bomb proof at all, and if they are suffering and not talking to anyone about it, their risk of dying by suicide is higher than those who do talk about struggling.
      I hope you have the good support system all essential workers deserve at this time, and that whatever you decide to do next will be good for you!

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