Recently another veterinary technician, Amanda Ryan, took her life.
Amanda’s distraught co-workers in North Carolina started a Facebook page in her honor, The Fighting Blues For Amanda. It has 4,500 members and is still growing.
There has been a great deal of coverage about the increase in suicides of veterinarians, but there has been little talk of this issue when it comes to support staff.
Those of us that choose to work in the veterinary field do it because of our love for animals. Over the years though, that love can take a toll, both mentally and physically. Like veterinarians, veterinary technicians tend to be high achievers, strive for perfection, work long hours for low pay, and are invested emotionally in our patients. As in human medicine, we work in life and death situations, and the life of our patients is often in our hands. What is unique to the veterinary profession is we also help to end lives to alleviate suffering with euthanasia. Other challenges we face are similar to what the average Joe struggles with: low wages and social media.
Being a part of the euthanasia process would appear to the general public to be a big issue for our field in contributing to burnout and compassion fatigue, but in reality, it is a small part of the problems I hear support personnel experiencing when they’re discussing burnout and compassion fatigue. The National Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) ran a survey in 2016 and found that the greatest challenge for veterinary technicians/support staff is “office dynamics, communication, and personnel.” The dynamics of the workplace and how we treat each other is a big issue in veterinary medicine.
For some reason I don’t understand, many clinics have a “mean girls” culture. That is not to say it is just women being mean. It means that for some reason or another, someone is targeted as not working fast enough; someone’s skillset is not good enough; team members are made fun of or talked about behind their backs; and when any of those targets seek help from management, they are called out as tattle tales. Instead of helping to build that person up, often they are ignored and bullied by others in the practice. This has to stop. We should embrace other team members and help teach them better skills, welcome them, provide support if you see them struggling with a patient, and be better team players.
Another issue I often hear is that veterinary staff are overworked and underpaid. While salaries vary by region, most veterinary support staff salaries are not enough to be able to live on. Many veterinary technicians have to seek a second job to be able to pay their bills. Health insurance is offered at many clinics, but it is so expensive that a lot of support personnel are not able to participate in it. Ten-hour (or more) work days are becoming the norm in veterinary medicine. Long days without breaks take their toll both mentally and physically. Within 10 years of becoming a veterinary technician, most people have back and knee issues. Plus, not being able to forget your patients all day is draining; it is difficult to just turn it off.
When I used to ask my veterinary assisting students why they wanted to enter the field, they would often say it’s because they are not good with people or do not like working with the public. In a veterinary clinic, client service is a huge part of your day-to-day tasks. While most clients are great to work with and respectful of the veterinary team, it just takes that one client that yells “You’re only in it for the money!” to ruin your day. The general public often does not understand that we use the same equipment and materials that are used in human medicine, but without the insurance and government help to offset the patient’s end price. Many pet insurance plans do not cover a lot of conditions, depending on your plan, and most require the owner to pay up front and then are reimbursed.
Additionally, we are now living in the age of social media and online reviews. When some clients are unhappy they run to their social media accounts and blast “DO NOT GO TO XX CLINIC, they just want to rip you off!” This behavior has contributed to more than one veterinarian committing suicide.
Words can hurt more than we realize.
What can be done about this crisis? Within the field, we need to remove the stigma of seeking mental health help. Make support staff aware of some of the groups available for support. We must take better care of ourselves and our co-workers.
Clients, remember to thank your veterinary team for caring for your pet. Instead of posting to social media, talk to clinic management if you are not happy with an invoice or the care of your pet.
Amanda Ryan’s friends started a movement with their Facebook group, #TheFightingBluesForAmanda. Let’s keep it going and work to help more people so we don’t hear about another veterinary technician committing suicide.
(Editor’s Note: The Veterinary Information Network [VIN, the parent of VetzInsight] and the VIN Foundation offer a support group for veterinary technicians. For more information, see the group’s Facebook page.)
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.