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The Flipside of Burnout

""New research explores linking self-care to better veterinarians

The tools and concepts that can help develop resilience within the veterinary profession needn’t wait until veterinarians are working in the field. That’s why the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) is helping students develop these skills by placing wellness training directly into the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) curriculum.

As part of the AWAR2E group — a group of five researchers with the mission of Advancing Wellness and Resilience via Research and Education — OVC professors Andria Jones-Bitton, OVC 2000, and Colleen Best, OVC 2009, as well as PhD Candidate Jennifer Perret, OVC 2009, are conducting research to understand factors affecting the mental well-being of veterinarians. They are doing this with the goal of developing training and other support programs for both students within the DVM program and practicing veterinarians in the field.

A model of eight domains of wellness (emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, as well as meaning and purpose) and the construct of emotional intelligence were used as the foundation for the new wellness curricular components.

“Students need to recognize resilience is a skill they can learn and build upon,” says Best. “By putting it in the formal DVM curriculum, we’re saying it matters a lot to OVC.”

In year one, students are introduced to 13 hours of new wellness-focused instruction, where several domains of wellness are discussed and then put into practice in practical labs. In year two, the Art of Veterinary Medicine course incorporates concepts of compassion, emotional intelligence and boundaries. Final year students are also able to select a one-week elective rotation specifically focused on wellness and resilience, which include self-awareness, mindfulness, mental health literacy, personal strengths and values, boundaries and assertiveness, developing healthy habits, mind-body techniques, financial planning, and nutrition.

Best recognizes there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. She says feedback from students shows different approaches resonated with different students.

“Certain techniques will appeal to some but not others, so we encourage students to reflect on what they were exposed to and to create their own tool kit that will help them remember what helps when times are dark,” she says.

“My favourite part of the rotation was the mind-body skills that we did. We saw through biofeedback how our bodies respond to breathing techniques, and how it can calm us down and reduce anxiety,” said Shannon Finn, OVC 2018. “I did some of those breathing exercises on all my breaks during my veterinary licensing exam. It helped with focus, to calm me down and to ground me so I was ready for the next session.”

The team has collected pre-training and post-training data to measure the short and long-term impacts on enhancing resilience. This research is supported by Zoetis Canada.

“Veterinary medicine is a rewarding profession, but it’s also fraught with stresses and challenges,” says Jones-Bitton. “By working to build resilience in our student veterinarians we hope to set them up for success in serving their patients and clients.”

“I hope these students go out and seed wellness within the profession,” says Best. “Some veterinary practices have wellness advocates. Once we can back up wellness recommendations with data, we hope more veterinarians will use that evidence to address and support their own self-care.”

Studying the link between self-care and better veterinarians

When OVC researchers began a pilot project studying the state of mental wellness amongst veterinarians in 2015, they were able to confirm what they long-suspected: the veterinary profession is struggling when it comes to well-being and self-care. With support from OVC Pet Trust and Zoetis Canada, professors Andria Jones-Bitton and Colleen Best, and Jennifer Perret, PhD Candidate, looked at a number of negative indicators of mental health in relation to the veterinary field, including anxiety, depression, compassion fatigue and burnout.

“Compassion fatigue and burnout are multi-faceted constructs,” says Best. “In some areas, almost half of the veterinary population surveyed in our study was in a ‘concerning’ category. But we also looked at resilience, which is the flipside of those negative indicators — it’s what helps us recover from stress or strain, and to thrive. It promotes good wellbeing.”

Best says the team’s pilot project that looked at the mental health status of Ontario veterinarians followed by a more fulsome survey that went Canada-wide and is still being analyzed — will provide the first data investigating the state of mental health of veterinarians in Canada.

Now, they’re embarking on a number of projects that investigate varying aspects and impacts of mental health and resilience in practicing veterinarians and veterinary students alike.

What are the eight domains of wellness?

The eight domains of wellness and the construct of emotional intelligence were used as the foundation for the new wellness curricular components at the Ontario Veterinary College. These domains include:

Positive thinking, valuing and accepting oneself

Good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well-being

Satisfaction with current and future financial situations via active decision making

Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills

Personal satisfaction and enrichment from one’s work

Recognizing beneficial lifestyle choices that make us feel and become healthier

Developing a sense of connection, belonging and a well-developed support system

Meaning & Purpose
Exploring and understanding one’s core ideals, values, principles

As seen in the Spring Summer 2018 issue of The Crest magazine. The Crest is the research, teaching and health care magazine of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Read the entire issue on the OVCAA webpage.

If you are an OVC alumni you can update your address through Alumni Affairs.