Dr Allen Leman reminded us in his 1988 Kernkamp Lecture1 that livestock producers want veterinarians, among other things, “to be co-responsible for farm success or failure” and to “help share the burden or worry.” The stakes have always been high for livestock producers. It is a vocation that is not for the risk averse. As farming operations get larger, the potential emotional investment by both the farmer and the farm veterinarian can become substantial.
Dr Andria Jones-Bitton, a veterinary epidemiologist who has recently focused on the issue of veterinary wellness, soon realized from her investigations that farmers were also showing significant evidence of stress.2 A survey of over 1100 Canadian farmers about stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, and resilience found that 45% are facing high levels of stress, 60% are dealing with some level of anxiety, 35% are dealing with depression, and 35% to 45% are demonstrating signs of burnout. Many food-animal producers grew up believing that agriculture was a higher calling. Unfortunately, these same producers are now deluged with criticism about who they are and what they do. Social media has made it possible for anyone to share their thoughts about food-animal production, with little evidence that these critics let facts and science get in the way of expressing their opinions. Farmers are under a great deal of stress, and some of that is bound to spill over to the veterinarians attending their farms. This is especially true for those aspiring to help “share the burden or worry.”
Our compassion for our clients and for the pigs in our care motivates us to relieve human and animal suffering. Problems may be quickly resolved or may become protracted. Some events may be traumatic. A mass euthanasia event related to a barn fire or a foreign animal disease incursion can have long-lasting effects on our mental health. Repeated exposure to these traumatic events can produce emotional fatigue and burnout.
When emotional fatigue sets in, it becomes extremely difficult for a veterinarian to function properly. It can be more difficult to be empathetic. Communication becomes a challenge. The physical effects of emotional fatigue can include headaches and tiredness. These problems can make it almost impossible to deliver the quality of care that we normally aspire to. Brenda Lovell, an independent researcher studying the wellness of veterinarians, has recently shown3 that work-life balance, emotional demands, and business management are other common sources of stress for veterinarians.
New regulations are changing the role of veterinarians on the farm. As part of the focus on antimicrobial stewardship, veterinarians are being charged with the responsibility to authorize the use of antimicrobials. Along with this authority comes a new level of transparency and accountability. Veterinarians will surely be faced with some complicated ethical dilemmas in balancing antimicrobial stewardship and the need to alleviate animal suffering. We should not be alone in working through these complicated deliberations.
As veterinarians, we need to be armed with the skills needed to cope with these stresses. Steven Covey proposed “Sharpening the Saw4” as the 7th habit of highly effective people. This involves having an ongoing, balanced program for self-renewal in four key areas: physical, social-emotional, mental, and spiritual. The bottom line is that we will need to devote some time and effort to educating ourselves about better ways to manage stress and emotional fatigue. If we want to be there for our clients and patients, we will first need to be there for ourselves. After all, a career in veterinary medicine is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to do the right training to be able to go the distance!
1. Leman AD. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Food Animal Educational Diseases: HCH Kernkamp Memorial Lecture. Proc Swine Herd Health Programming Conf. 1988:232–239.
*2. Jones-Bitton A. Farmers relieved mental health issues on the table. Available at https://www. realagriculture.com/2016/01/farmers-relieved-mental-health-issues-on-the-table-coordinator/. Accessed 12 November 2016.
3. Lovell BL, Lee RT. Burnout and health promotion in veterinary medicine. Can Vet J. 2013;54:790–791.
4. Covey SR. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Free Press; 2004.
* Non-refereed reference