occupational stress

A review published in the Irish Veterinary Journal highlights the risks of occupational stress in veterinary professionals.

Those who choose to pursue careers caring for and providing healthcare to animals typically do so as a result of an innate love and compassion for animals. The irony of making a career out of providing care for creatures you empathize with is the increased risk of compassion fatigue and burnout from a result of repeated exposure to high-stress events. A recent review in the Irish Veterinary Journal summarizes what we know so far about occupational stress, specifically burnout and compassion fatigue, in veterinary nurses and other veterinary colleagues.

Euthanization is a novel experience that even professionals in the human health profession don’t typically deal with making it difficult to understand the psychological consequences of dealing with such an emotionally taxing event. There is growing concern of diminished physical and mental health in veterinary professionals, potentially leading to suicide or illness, which has inspired the review of research relating to occupational stress and strategies for those in veterinary work environments.

Two consequences of high occupational stress identified by the researchers were burnout and compassion fatigue. Burnout is a direct result of a work environment and can potentially be relieved through seeking another workplace. It is characterized by emotional exhaustion, increased cynicism, and low self-worth. Burnout can lead to either avoiding the workplace through increased absenteeism or not being focused and present while on the job.

Compassion fatigue is, on the other hand, is associated with specific patients, clients, and traumatic events. Compassion fatigue is described as a type of secondary post-traumatic stress disorder where one becomes overwhelmed and preoccupied with the emotions associated with stressful events which happened to others (i.e. patients). Veterinary nurses are at high risk for both burnout and compassion fatigue since they typically do not receive any training addressing how to cope in overwhelming work environments. The job of health care professionals is to provide compassionate care but oftentimes, the worker is not able to find compassion for themselves.

The authors highlight the importance of several coping strategies and traits that may be beneficial for veterinary staff or anyone that deals with similar occupational stressors. Coping mechanisms defined as most productive would be problem-focused coping mechanisms where one combats the source of the stress rather than the emotional response. Another strategy looks at the restructuring of the work environment in order to improve communication between staff, overall team support, better planning, preparation, and acknowledging a job well done. Furthermore, employers should look to implement a debrief session after stressful cases to help in supporting and acknowledging the workers’ emotions.

Self-care is the act of having compassion for oneself and taking the time to check in and avoid becoming overworked. Healthcare professionals are generally committed to seeing to everyone else’s needs over their own and as a result, they struggle to commit to self-care. Acts of self-care include, but are not limited to, sleeping well, eating well, exercising regularly, or practicing mindfulness and/or meditation. Furthermore, the authors describe the quality of resilience as the ability to adapt or bounce back after experiencing a difficult situation such as trauma or illness. Resilient individuals are able to focus on positive aspects of their work and don’t see negative obstacles as reasons to give up, thus promoting better coping strategies.

Coping strategies, resilience, and prioritizing self-care are all skills that can be trained and honed through practice and awareness. There is, however limited research as to how occupational stress relates to veterinary professionals and so these issues are not of high priority in undergraduate education. Burnout and compassion fatigue creates for inattentive, cynical, and exhausted practitioners which compromises their ability to react in medical emergencies and provide appropriate care to clients and patients. The consequences of maladaptive coping not only affect the employee in their personal and professional life but also those under their care.

Written by Elena Popadic


Lloyd, C. and Campion, D. (2017). Occupational stress and the importance of self-care and resilience: focus on veterinary nursing. Irish Veterinary Journal, 70(1).

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