Jamie Holms has 17 years of experience in the veterinary field, most in emergency and critical care. Prior to that, she was an animal control officer and a veterinary team manager for a 24-hour practice in Los Altos, Calif. She is currently the administrative manager for Dr. Andy Roark and Uncharted Veterinary Conferences. Jamie is passionate about mental health and suicide prevention in the veterinary community and is a firm believer that education reduces stigma and increases survival. She is a certified Mental Health First Aid responder, QPR gatekeeper, and certified gatekeeper instructor. Jamie is an administrative rock star, organizational aficionado, tea geek, and workaholic.Read Articles Written by Jamie Holms
Are we doing enough for the mental health and wellness of our profession? Can the next steps we take in preventing suicide in the veterinary profession make a difference? We have taken the first step in acknowledging that mental health and wellness concerns are impacting our practice and profession. Long gone are the days of pretending that mental health concerns and general wellness are best left outside of the practice and that employees should leave their “problems” at the door. We recognize that addressing employee mental and emotional health is crucial for the wellbeing of our veterinary practices and profession as a whole.
A report from the Mental Health in the Workplace Summit held in 2018 confirms that mental illness is the leading cause of disability for U.S. adults aged 15 to 44.1 In fact, the report found, more days are lost to absenteeism due to mental health than to other illnesses or injuries. Mental illness costs the global economy 1 trillion dollars in lost productivity.2 The costs of chronic disease, work-related injuries and illnesses, stress, and employee disengagement in the U.S. surpasses 2.2 trillion each year—or 12% of the country’s gross domestic product.3
The NAVC’s Amplifying the Voice of the Veterinary Community survey, conducted in December 2019, found that of the 608 veterinary professionals who responded, 53% of veterinary nurses reported low mental wellbeing and 46% reported feeling depressed.4 On a positive note, 87% reported that helping animals on a daily basis was the favorite part of their job, and 67% said their job is meaningful and has purpose. Despite the overwhelmingly positive response regarding their love of animals, only 15% of survey participants said it was fun to go to work; 34% said they planned to leave the profession within the next 5 years.
It’s interesting to point out that while 85% of our coworkers are not having a good time at work, fewer than half of those people are thinking about leaving the field. That means that the rest of our unhappy coworkers are going to keep coming into work. In fact, that unhappy veterinary nurse might even be you. While I don’t want people to leave the veterinary field, I am a strong believer that people who are not happy doing what they are doing should find something else. I’m also an advocate for personal responsibility. As individuals and as a profession, we are responsible for our day-to-day happiness in our work.
As of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon.5 While burnout is not classified as a medical condition, it is classified as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. WHO further classifies burnout by the following 3 factors (which are specific to the occupational context and should not be used to describe experiences in other areas of life): 5
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
- The responsibility of the employer or practice manager is to ask employees how they can help them be most successful at work. As employees, we must answer these questions and be responsible for helping to foster a healthy workplace culture in our practices.
3 Steps to Improve Workplace Wellbeing
- Spearhead a workplace wellness initiative and wellness culture shift.
Creating a successful, impactful, long-lasting mental health and wellness initiative requires more than offering a gym membership, health screenings, or yoga and meditation classes. An ideal initiative will involve a culture shift. It encourages teamwork and healthy habits practice-wide. We all know veterinary medicine is a team effort. Our approach to wellness and mental health can be approached from a similar vantage point.
The Do’s and Don’ts
Do: Bring it to the team. The first step in a workplace-wide wellness initiative requires finding out which options your coworkers are most interested in and how and if they would like to participate. Include questions about what would help support sustained participation and what environmental factors could enhance wellness for them. This doesn’t have to come from management. Employees can spearhead wellness initiatives as well.
Do: Engage wellness champions. There are people within your practice who are already active, practice good nutrition and mindfulness, and have healthy habits. Invite them to help and give them opportunities to lead.
Do: Make small, incremental changes. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when making change. Your wellness initiative should be implemented incrementally to help build healthy habits over time and maintain engagement.
Don’t: Make participation mandatory. Not everyone will participate in wellness offerings; some people will be enthusiastic and engage right away, others might need encouragement. Keep in mind that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness.
Don’t: Focus only on employees living with mental illness. Enhancing wellbeing practice-wide will maximize the energy, effectiveness, and positivity of every employee. Wellness is for everyone.
2. Use a multimodal approach to suicide prevention and mental wellness.
Break the stigma around talking about mental health concerns. Remember that suicide prevention needs to be as multimodal as pain control.
The Do’s and Don’ts
Do: Get appropriate training. It can be difficult and even inappropriate to speak with your coworkers about their mental health. Enter the professionals. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) have trained professionals who can teach supervisors and coworkers about mental health and how to handle sensitive issues. EAPs are designed to assist companies in “addressing productivity issues” and employees in “identifying and resolving personal concerns.”6 You can also utilize community and online training opportunities like Mental Health First Aid (mentalhealthfirstaid.org) and ASK (askassesssupportknow.com) to educate yourself and your team on mental health and suicide prevention.
Do: Ask if you can post #4EyesSaveLives stickers or magnets on your lockboxes, in break rooms, and in bathrooms. Talk to your management and coworkers about why this is important to your practice.7
Don’t: Ignore the signs that a coworker may be struggling with depression.
3. Set the example.
Cultivating a workplace environment centered on healthy habits and good choices begins with you.
The Do’s and Don’ts
Do: Take your breaks, and encourage your coworkers to take breaks and get out of the building.
Do: Lead a wellness challenge.
Do: Be open about the wellness challenges you face.
Don’t: Work through your lunch. Martyrdom is so last decade.
Why Does It Matter?
Addressing mental and physical health in the workplace may seem like an insurmountable journey, but it starts with very small but intentional steps. We are in this together. This is your tribe, these are your people. Use the following questions to help you develop the next steps to wellness in your practice. What resources do you already have? Who in your practice is already a wellness champion? Why does this matter to the culture of your practice? What does a wellness shift in yourself and your practice culture look like in 1 year? What 3 small steps will you take in the next 8 weeks to begin this process.
1. Goetzel RZ, Roemer EC, Hollingue C, et al. Mental health in the workplace. journals.lww.com/joem/Fulltext/2018/04000/Mental_Health_in_the_Workplace___A_Call_to_Action.5.aspx. Accessed March 12, 2020.
2. World Health Organization. Mental Health in the Workplace. who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en. Accessed March 12, 2020.
3. The Future of Wellness at Work. globalwellnessinstitute.org/industry-research/the-future-of-wellness-at-work. Accessed March 12, 2020.
4. NAVC. Amplifying the Voice of the Veterinary Community. navc.com/download/2020_NAVC_Voice_of_the_Vet.pdf. Accessed December 2019.
5. World Health Organization. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en. Accessed March 12, 2020.
6. International Employee Assistance Professionals Association Online FAQ 2020. eapassn.org/FAQs. Accessed March 12, 2020.
7. Roark A. What do we do about suicide? It’s time to limit access to means. drandyroark.com/what-do-we-do-about-suicide. Accessed March 12, 2020.